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Episode 5: Let My People Stay

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Long-time resident, community activist, father, and husband, Ravi Ragbir, has fought against permanent exile from life in the U.S. for over 11 years. For Ravi and his family, it’s been a fight to take back control over their life. Only a few months after Trump took office, Ravi mobilized a large rally in New York City for his ICE check-in. Dozens of elected officials, union and community organizations, and allies gathered in solidarity. As an organizer with groups like Families for Freedom and now as Executive Director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, Ravi made it clear that the rally was not just for him, but for all immigrants fighting the inhumanity of deportation – particularly those who lack his public profile and extensive support networks. As anti-immigrant rhetoric and attacks continued to proliferate across the country in 

Trump’s first 100 days, Ravi offered the crowd a moving reminder of the power of organized resistance:

When I look out at you, each and every one here, this is a sea of love. This is like the Katrina that is going to overtake any wall that is going to be built because this sea of love is going to make that change.”

Ravi’s immigration story began when he came to the U.S. from Trinidad in 1991 on a visitor’s visa. In 1994, he became a lawful permanent resident. His U.S. citizen daughter, Deborah, was born the following year. A 15-year green card holder, Ravi was detained and ordered deported in 2006 by an immigration judge—without a hearing—based on a conviction for fraud, which he is currently seeking to vacate, based on 

factual and legal errors in his trial. He spent years on house arrest and in immigrant detention.

Today, with his own struggle driving his work alongside other impacted communities, Ravi has become a nationally-recognized leader. Through his work, Ravi met and eventually married Amy Gottlieb, a U.S. citizen and fellow immigrant rights activist with the American Friends Services Committee’s Immigration Program. Despite being eligible to readjust his status to permanent resident based on his marriage, the Board of Immigration Appeals denied Ravi’s request for an opportunity to be heard. Ravi is currently appealing this decision so that he can remain with his wife and daughter in the U.S., the place he has called home for over twenty years. The intersection of criminal and immigration law is tortuous, harsh, and offers limited due process. As Ravi’s attorney, Alina Das, Co-Director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the NYU School of Law, puts it: “Every bad possible thing that could happen to you all wrapped into one decision that a government official is making.”

Ravi and Amy live in Brooklyn and spend the majority of their time in the New York/New Jersey area, where their family—including Ravi’s daughter Deborah—also lives. Amy considers Ravi her “closest friend and confidant” and describes their relationship as “a deep connection” in which they “have come to rely on each other for support, friendship, for advice, and companionship.” Deportation would destroy the couple’s dream of building a family together. “We have created a life together,” Amy explains, “and the idea of living that life without my husband is devastating.”

Ravi has experienced some of the worst of the deportation system. But as a result of the watershed changes Congress made to our immigration laws in 1996, thousands families face similar experiences every year. Over the past two decades, almost five million people have been torn from their families as a result. More so, because of his criminal conviction, an immigration judge ordered Ravi deported without granting him a hearing on the issue, stripping Ravi of a reasonable opportunity to present his full humanity, including evidence of his character and strong community ties. Like so many others, he was subject to mandatory, indefinite detention for years in New Jersey and Alabama, far from his community and his young daughter.

For more on Ravi’s life and social justice struggle, and to support, visit his defense committee page.

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 Episode Transcript

Amy Gottlieb: The Saturday after we got married we went to the Rockaways. We went to the beach and the next thing we know we start hearing something say, “You have exited your master zone. You’ve exited your master zone.” And it’s beeping.

Will Coley: This is not what Amy Gottlieb expected on her honeymoon. But her husband Ravi Ragbir was on parole from immigration detention on condition that he stay within the five boroughs of New York City. So they decided to take a day trip to a beach in queens.

Amy Gottlieb: And it was an ankle monitor because we had accidentally crossed the border from Queens into Nassau county, which is not part of the five boroughs. And so the ankle monitor GPS just went crazy and started talking. Our world was suddenly a master zone. You know. That was super crazy.

Ravi Ragbir: When you thinking that everything is good, you know you’re in a state of joy ‘cause we just got married right?

AG: Mm-hum.

RR: Were you happy when you were married?

AG: I was glowing, beaming.

WC: You are listening to Indefensible.

Trump: We’re getting really bad dudes out of this country. And at a rate that nobody’s ever seen before.

Alina Das: Every bad possible thing that could happen to you all wrapped into one decision that a government official is making.

Rhiya Trivedi: I hope that he walks out of there and it’s just no big deal because Ravi belongs here with the people who love him and the people he’s spent you know nearly a decade fighting for.

WC: Stories of people resisting deportation. I’m Will Coley. Ravi and Amy are good friends of mine. A few months ago I went to their house for dinner. They ordered take out, Trinidadian food. I’ve known them for years but I’d never really heard Ravi tell his story from the beginning. Ravi grew up in Trinidad and has been living in the U.S. for twenty seven years.

RR: Came to the U.S. in 1990. I was given the opportunity to vacation, travel and I was just planning to be here for a few weeks, two weeks actually. But I was in between jobs. A friend said, ‘Why don’t you just stay here? You know you look at the exchange and you look at the opportunities here you may. It may work out better for you.’

WC: Ravi settled into life in the U.S. continuing his education. He met and married someone. Ravi doesn’t want to talk about his ex-wife. She sponsored him for his green card and they had a daughter.

RR: I I think it was in ’97 I started working at mortgages.

WC: What does that mean working at mortgages? Like what were you doing?

RR: I was a sales rep. So I will be soliciting people on the phone, telephone, telemarketer. One of the things I always told every. One of my clients, was you have to be able to afford this loan ‘casue if you don’t you’re going to lose your homes. I felt at that time it was. It was helping them, if they could afford the loan.

WC: This was the late 1990s in the midst of the housing bubble that would lead to the subprime mortgage crisis. Ravi started noticing that something was wrong with the company’s loans.

RR: I found out they were doing compound interest on the loans. So the principles were never coming down. They were always going up. It was illegal at the time.

WC: Ravi believes that it was his questions about compound interest that got him in trouble with his employer. And he thinks that’s why he was targeted when law enforcement officials started investigating.

RR: I started talking about the compound interest plans. I became the. The target. That’s what caused this problem.

WC: Company managers pushed the staff to do whatever they had to do to get new customers. In the rush to sign people up, little attention was paid to credit worthiness of the mortgage buyers. Ravi had a client who was buying multiple properties to fix up and rent out. He didn’t know at the time that the man was using the credit information from friends and family to buy even more property.

RR: So he would use someone’s last name, someone else’s credit report. Send them to us. Now the reason it. It worked was because we were told not to check those things. He would buy houses and put it in his friend’s name. He ran out of people he knew. So he was. He started taking other people’s information and put it in their name. And by the way, this was only started like the first time he did this is the first time he got caught and the first time I got caught up in that.

WC: The client ran out of real connections to use when applying for mortgages. So he started to use information from people he didn’t know.

RR: So he had send someone with a fake identification and stuff to the office and. Wow. I lost seventeen years of my life for this man. That’s. That’s. I been fighting this since 1999. It’s a long time to be fighting this. I’m just all of those events are just flashing through my head right now. I can still see the police, the sirens, the flashing lights and I’m. I’m. I’m remember looking out the door and seeing. Telling my colleague who was there, the receptionist. I said, “What’s going on? They look like there’s an accident or something.” And now I. I realize it was that they had. They had surrounded the car and was arresting a person. And then after that they. They came to the office and said, “We’re looking into the matter and everyone has to go down to the police station.”

WC: When did you realize that you were in trouble?

RR: I didn’t realize I was in trouble until ICE was standing in the cell.

WC: How did you feel at that moment?

RR: Can’t remember.

WC: You’re feeling something now. I can tell. Is it the sort of thing that like when you. You know when you make a wrong turn, you do something and you keep going back to that one moment and you keep wanting to think how you can redo it? Is that when you kind of knew?

RR: That’s what is happened right now. Which is where you see this. If I had done something different what else would have happened?And that’s what’s slipping through my head right now.

WC: Ravi was charged with conspiring to commit wire fraud. As Ravi discovered later, the client was trying to defraud the mortgage company. Ravi had received the false loan applications. In court he maintained he was innocent. Even so, Ravi was found guilty. He appealed the decision and was placed on house arrest for three years. When Ravi lost his appeal, he was sentenced to another three years of federal custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Ravi turned himself in. As soon as he arrived he got help from other prisoners.

RR: When I went in there I look for people like myself. Okay who’s a Western Indian in this place? And this Trinidadian who never met me before, took me up into his cell and say, ‘Okay what? What do you need? Take whatever you need.’ Food, toothbrush. Gave. He gave me cups and spoons and all of these things. That’s what happens when you taken advantage of, well they help you out. The one of the ways you avoid confrontation of violence is if you know people. I was. I was adopted very quickly. I didn’t see sunlight for three years. I mean I saw it through the window. But I didn’t see sunlight and fresh air for three years. It was an interesting time.

WC: After three long years Ravi was ready to complete his prison sentence. But the day before he was to be released in 2006, Ravi learned that he would be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They took him to the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey. He appeared before an immigration judge who summarily ordered him deported without a hearing on his case. The judge didn’t listen to any evidence about Ravi’s character or take into consideration that he has family in the U.S. Ravi appealed the decision so he was forced to stay in detention. By now he knew about dealing with life inside. Ravi learned the importance of filing grievances or complaint forms for mistreatment or any problems or other detainees in his dorm encountered.

RR: Everything that happens to you, you have to file a grievance. So in Bergen County we had a. We had a hunger strike when they turned the air conditioner off when it was a hundred degrees outside. The officer was playing games with us. He was turning off so it got really bad and didn’t come back on because he broke the frickin thing. So for two weeks we had no air conditioning.

WC: Ravi documented the day to day problems the detainees faced. He also contacted human rights organization like the American Civil Liberties Union. This limited activism would be essential to Ravi’s future. After a year in the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey, ICE then transferred Ravi to a county jail in Alabama.

RR: Because they had just opened this jail and there was some new beds so they took me down to fill that. Fill up some beds down in Alabama.

WC: Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintains 34,000 beds in immigration detention around the country. People in one facility are often moved to other facilities far from families and their lawyers. That’s what happened to Ravi.

RR: In MDC and in Bergen County I didn’t really get a chance to go outside and in Alabama we were able to be in. In. In fresh air. We would go out into the courtyard we were to play basketball. We were to. To exercise outside so it was better in that instance. But it was I mean far away from everything right.

WC: At the Perry County Correctional Center in Alabama, immigration detainees lived alongside lifers, U.S. citizens serving life sentences. One day some of these men escaped and the facility was locked down. Conditions got even harsher.

RR: Because of the way they treated us, I end up writing organizations throughout the country and the ACLU had saw my letter and they. So they used this as an opportunity to get more information about the jail. So they came down to visit me. And you heard the story. I’ve said the story many times.

WC: These people haven’t heard the story, whoever’s listening to this.

RR: Sam from the ACLU he visited me. We. He interviewed me. We spent seven hours talking. Seven hours. And he visited me a second time. So the other thing about immigration is they don’t like lawsuits. So when I met with the ACLU they was expecting some lawsuit to be filed that would change the conditions that we were kept in. So they were looking for a way to release me and they released me under ISAP.

WC: ISAP is the Intensive Appearance and Supervision Program. ICE used this to bring Ravi back to New Jersey and parole him. The official reason was that Ravi’s case was on appeal, which meant he couldn’t be deported right away. But Ravi think the meetings with the ACLU influenced ICE’s decision to release him. As part of this program in the 2000s, ICE started using electronic monitors as an alternative form of detention and surveillance. The monitors are about the size of a cell phone and they’re strapped to your ankle so ICE can track your every move. It’s up to you to charge them every day. So Ravi became one of the 2.2 million people who are currently under supervision of ICE that are living outside of detention.

RR: When I was being released, Sam told me to check out this organization because they are the ones who are going to be. Who continue this fight. The day after I got released, I ended up in this human rights organization. From that moment I was volunteering with them.

WC: Ravi started volunteering with Families for Freedom, a community based organization in New York that assists and organizes individuals and families facing the same immigration challenges that Ravi is.

RR: And I would be speaking at many things. I was everywhere towards the end. I met a lot of people. I was participating in their rallies and their protests. So homelessness and economic and housing and all these things. I was with everyone.

WC: Ravi had become a jailhouse lawyer during the time in detention, helping roommates navigate the legal process by consulting the law library. So when he was released, Ravi kept helping. He connected people facing deportation to the immigration clinic at New York University Law School. That’s where he met law professor Alina Das. She decided to take his case.

Alina Das: Well by the time I met Ravi he had already been fighting for many years. He had been placed into deportation proceedings back in 2006. And had a final order of removal, which he was appealing at that time to the federal court in New York called the 2nd Circuit. So I came into the picture to help him on his federal appeal. Since that time in 2008 I’ve been representing him. We’ve fought it out in the federal court system. We’ve tried to take his case to the supreme court. We’ve tried to reopen his old order. We’ve tried a lot of different options to bring justice to his case. He’s never gotten a fair hearing, the kind of hearing I think a lot of people assume a person would get before they were deported where you’d be able to look at the factors in their life, make a decision about whether or not he should be deported. He’s never gotten that kind of hearing. That’s what we’ve always been fighting for, and the federal courts have thus far failed us.

WC: What do you want Americans who don’t understand the complexity of immigration law to understand about a case like Ravi’s?

AD: So deportation itself doesn’t do anything to solve problems. It only creates new ones. If someone is going to face something as harsh as deportation, that they should at least have the opportunity to go before a judge and you know just have the chance to tell their case. I mean if you were facing an order, a decision that was essentially every bad possible thing that could happen to you all wrapped up in one, it’s like getting an eviction notice, having your kids be taken away from you, losing your job and then being forced to move to a country that you may not have been to in ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty five, thirty years all wrapped up into one decision that a government official is making, the very least that you would expect to have an ability to. To plead your case. And that is simply not allowed under our laws and under our broken immigration system. And I don’t think any American should be supporting that kind of policy because it simply is un-American.

WC: Okay so when did you meet your second wife?

RR: Actually I would. That’s a good story and I will let her tell you that story.

WC: I need your version too.

RR: No we. We had rehearsed this many, many times so it’s. It’s just the same version. She will tell it to you in this really romantic way. She just heard the sound of my voice and it. It just sent chills up her spine.

WC: Amy is rolling her eyes right now. I’ve known Amy for nearly twenty years. We worked together in a non-profit organization in New Jersey. She’s been an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights. So when Ravi got involved with producing a radio show, it made sense that he’d invite Amy as a guest. They didn’t meet face to face since it was a phone interview.

RR: Welcome to the show Amy.

AG: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

RR: Why should the next president reform this immigration process?

AG: So Ravi, this other friend of ours who is a journalist, was, were interviewing me. It was like an hour long radio show. It’s actually really good.

WC: But then you first met him in person in Oakland, California?

AG: I think that’s right. Ravi was on this workshop about immigration detention which I went to. And I think. I can’t remember if. Like we introduced ourselves or I went up to him and said, ‘You interviewed me for the radio. Nice to meet you in person.’ Or something like that.

WC: Ravi and Amy started dating. For several months they didn’t tell any of their friends. Part of it had to do with Ravi’s legal case.

AG: This guy’s got an immigration case pending and what am I thinking because we don’t know what the future will bring. You know I’m dating somebody who has a like big giant deportation case and I know the story. I know what our system is. I know how bad our laws are. So here I was like falling in love with this guy and not really having any idea what could happen. So I’m sort of like why do I want this out there? Because like where’s it going you know. And then it kind of went somewhere and we decided to start telling people. So I met Ravi’s mom before we were kind of out as dating. When he told her about me and things were kind of heating up with his case and we were nervous and we realized the New York ICE office had a policy that if you have things pending in federal court, they would allow you to stay, whereas New Jersey ICE office did not have that policy. So he would not have been allowed to pursue legal options if he’d stayed in New Jersey. So it was just for us to be able to stay together, he had to be in New York, otherwise New Jersey would have gone after him.

WC: Ravi’s family in Trinidad originally came from India. Ravi’s mother consults the Pachangum or Hindu calendar for guidance on the right days to do certain things.

AG: We knew that things had to move quickly and then she called and told Ravi that there were just some days that were really auspicious and we had to be careful. So it was either we got married like within that first week or we had to wait like a month I think. It was like a month later and we didn’t want to wait that month ‘cause we didn’t know what was going to happen. So we decided to do the quicky version and just get married very quickly, which was quite dramatic and intense and unexpected for all of our friends and family.

WC: Getting married to a U.S. citizen did not solve Ravi’s legal problems. His criminal conviction bars him from having a green card or permanent residence. ICE required that Ravi still wear the electronic ankle monitor.

Speaker: Kicked off by Ravi, the New Sanctuary Coalition which is immigration advocacy.

WC: Ravi started working for the New Sanctuary Coalition, a faith based project to protect the undocumented and those targeted for deportation.

RR: How many of you know of immigration crisis we are facing right now? Now I know I’m in the right place.

WC: Ravi’s lawyer, Alina Das has been fighting his immigration case since 2008. Alina has represented Ravi all the way to the Supreme Court. Here she is again.

AD: We’ve always fought the way his conviction was categorized in immigration law. The fact it was considered what’s called an aggravated felony, which is a term that kind of made up in immigration law that essentially means once that label is put on your case you just don’t get your day in court.

WC: Alina’s team have been fighting what aggravated felony means in immigration law. They haven’t succeeded yet. So instead, they’re trying to overturn Ravi’s original conviction based on how the case was prosecuted. That’s still pending.

AD: But it’s become clear that in Ravi’s case you know the legal system may not provide the relief he needs and that’s why community support has been so important to him.

WC: So that’s why Ravi and Alina organized a defense committee. Their group is made of of advocates, colleagues and friends who collectively decide on the legal strategies for Ravi. I joined the committee a few years ago. We often have early morning meetings over bagels and coffee at the NYU Law School.

Rhiya: Sort of catchall to me is the petition potentially, which is 850 or 880 or some people who’ve signed it now. And I’m wondering how many of those people.

WC: The defense committee gathered support letters for his case and most recently for a pardon at the end of President Obama’s term. But that didn’t work. The once success was getting the local office of ICE to agree to a two year stay of removal while Ravi resolved his case. But just after President Trump was inaugurated, Ravi was notified that he should check in with ICE, a year earlier than he expected. In the new environment the committee is worried there’s a real chance he could be detained and deported. I speak to Rhiya Trivedi, the NYU law student on the defense committee. It’s a few days before Ravi’s check in with ICE.

Rhiya Trivedi: I don’t think anybody deserves to be deported. But I especially think Ravi deserves to stay. And I know he would. He would get really mad at me for saying that, but I’m going to say it anyway. He possesses that extraordinary quality of being able to turn all of your trauma and the injustice you’ve experienced into commitment to other people.

WC: So what do you? What do you hope’s going to happen on Thursday?

RT: I hope he goes in and just like last year, the deportation officer sees his face, gives him a new date that’s several months from now and says goodbye and wishes him well. I hope that he walks out of there and it’s just no big deal. That would be the best situation.

WC: But Ravi’s wife Amy points out that people who were convicted of nonviolent crimes many years ago, like Ravi, were not a priority for deportation under the Obama Administration.

AG: Under the new administration we can’t say that. And you know from day one after the election, we immediately started hearing from people. We’re in this fight with you.

(singing)

WC: So the defense committee organized a solidarity rally on the morning before Ravi’s check in with ICE. Multiple organizations co-sponsored the event. And on that day, nearly 600 people showed up outside ICE’s office to support Ravi and other immigrants checking in that day. Several elected officials and community leaders spoke.

Singer: For Ravi!

JW: I’m Jumaane Williams Council Member from Brooklyn. I met Ravi about five, six years ago and since then I’ve been in awe of your courage, what you’re doing today shows courage. I said that you shouldn’t show up. That was my suggestion but you said no. You have to show what’s happened. You have to be the light for everybody else. And that says so much about you and it says you are the type of person that we need in America. And I’m so proud to be standing with you.

RR: But when I look out here. When I look out at you, each and every one here, this is a sea of love. This is like the Katrina that is going to overtake any wall that is going to be built because this sea of love is going to make that change.

Crowd: That’s right. That’s right Ravi. We are all Ravi today.

RR: So I thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I thank you because I know you are here for me and for many others and together we are going to make that change. Thank you.

Crowd: We are all Ravi. We are all Ravi.

AD: There will be a delegation now accompanying Mr. Ragbir into 26th Federal Plaza. Thank you.

WC: Ravi entered the federal building with the delegation of faith leaders, elected officials and family. They were swarmed by photographers and TV crews. So what do you think of?

AD: It’s powerful. It’s incredible. I’m glad people have shown their love for Ravi right now. I think it makes all the difference in the world.

WC: Meanwhile the crowd outside silently marched around the building. They called it a Jericho march after the story in the bible when the walls of Jericho fell down. Twenty minutes later, the delegation came out of the building. Amy’s mother Gail was among them.

Gail Gottlieb: I can’t cry in front of you. Stop.

WC: It’s okay.

GG: It’s not good. Oh you didn’t hear?

WC: No.

GG: He has to come back in a month.

WC: Ravi was detained but I’VE told him to return in a month with evidence that he’d applied for a travel document back to Trinidad.

AD: My name is Alina Das. I am very proud to be Ravi’s friends, colleague and his lawyer. And I’m here to report as you can see, that we are very grateful and humbled that Ravi is here with us. (cheering) He was able to check out of that appointment and to be returned to his family. We know from what we saw from loved ones that we talked to there, that not everyone’s that lucky. And that there are people there right now who are facing detention and deportation. However we are saddened by the news that we received in the. In the check in appointment where they asked Ravi to come back in one month to check in again and to make efforts to get a travel document. We don’t know what this means. Ravi does have a stay of removal that is in place and remains in place until 2018.

WC: So the defense committee started working on plans for another rally on April 11th. But the week before, Ravi got good news. ICE was rescheduling the check in for January. The defense committee’s work had paid off. They had somehow influenced ICE. On what would have been the day of Ravi’s check in, the defense committee gathered 100 people in front of the federal building for a Passover Seder.

Crowd: Let my people stay. Let my people stay.

Rabbi: Passover is a time of celebration and at the same time it’s a time of yearning. It’s a time of yearning for liberation for us as Jews and for all people around the world.

RR: Right now we have a stay of removal which is. That stay expires in January and that’s why they. They told me to come back just before that stay.

Crowd member: We’ll be back in January!

RR: Thank you.

WC: Ravi doesn’t know what will happen in January but his wife Amy and defense committee are already strategizing next steps with this case.

AG: Things are really hard often because we both do hard work and we’ve got this like spectre or evil deportation living over our heads but we have these phenomenal friends and supporters who are just there and standing up for us and holding us up.

Alina Das: He’s not only you know empowering himself and taking back some control over his own life by being able to speak freely about his experiences and what’s happened to him. He’s also empowering other people do do that.

WC: You’ve been listening to Indefensible and I’m Will Coley. This podcast is brought to you with the support of the Immigrant Defense Project and the Four Freedoms Fund. Andrew Ingkavet composed the music. KalaLea edited this episode and Ann Pope is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Ryan Sweikart, Marisa Jahn, Anjum Asharia, Gail Gottlieb, Janis Rosheuvel and the People’s Production House. This is the final story of our podcast series about people resisting deportation but join us next week for a special podcast extra. Let us know what you thought of this series by rating and commenting in iTunes or wherever you get your podcast. It helps others find these stories. Thanks for listening.

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