When word came down from the upper floors of Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was taking custody of Ravidath Ragbir and intended to deport him, hundreds of his supporters, standing outside on the cold sidewalk, raised up their hands to the monolithic building and screamed.
Ragbir had entered the building willingly, on his own steam, accompanied by his wife and family, his legal team, and a handful of elected officials. Now, his friends outside learned, Ravi — as everyone knows him — wouldn’t be coming back to them. They had planned for this possibility even as they hoped it wouldn’t come, but the plans soon gave way to a spontaneous gesture of resistance. As the ambulance carrying a handcuffed Ragbir — he had briefly fainted when he was taken into custody — pulled out of the Federal Plaza garage, supporters attempted to stop its progress. Friends, colleagues, clergy, and city council members put their bodies in front of the vehicle, blocking it with their lives.
The resulting chaos was exacerbated by law enforcement officers who pushed, yanked, and choked the nonviolent protesters. By the time the melee had died down outside the gates of New York City Hall, 18 people had been arrested and the ambulance had gotten away.
The EMT vehicle dropped Ragbir’s wife off at the front door of the hospital, but then sped off, transporting him to a different hospital. Ragbir was briefly examined before being taken in quick succession to immigration detention centers in Manhattan and New Jersey. By that evening, he was at the Krome Detention Center in Florida, awaiting final deportation to the country of his birth, Trinidad.
Ragbir moved to the United States more than 20 years ago and became a legal permanent resident. In 2001, he was convicted of wire fraud conspiracy for his role in a mortgage business that came under criminal investigation. After 2 1/2 years in prison, he was ordered to be deported. Throughout years of ongoing appeals, he was incarcerated first in New Jersey and then in Alabama. When he finally won his release pending the appeal’s outcome, Ragbir devoted his energies to helping people like himself: immigrants in danger of deportation.
The New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, where Ragbir is the executive director, emphasizes the power of illuminating the dark and confusing workings of the federal immigration machine. The coalition runs workshops to help immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries to apply for asylum. It sends groups of friendly volunteers to accompany people called to hearings in immigration court or mandatory check-ins with ICE officials. It builds a community of trust and mutual aid among New York’s most vulnerable and isolated immigrants.
The New Sanctuary Coalition’s work builds on a movement begun by religious congregations in the 1980s to support Central American refugees in defiance of Reagan-era immigration policies. Grounded in religious congregations, the movement relies in part on the government’s reluctance to send law enforcement into houses of worship. The concept of sanctuary — that people inside houses of worship enjoy some special protection from agents of the state — goes back centuries. But it doesn’t rest on any firm legal footing. While certain actions, like disrupting religious ceremonies, are illegal, the force keeping ICE officers from raiding churches has more to do with optics, said Rev. Michael Ellick, a former pastor at Judson Memorial Church and a friend of Ragbir. “It’s like, ‘OK, you can come and do that, but we’re going to have cameras rolling and everyone’s going to see you storming a church,’” he said. “Previous administrations, we thought they wouldn’t do that. But this administration? Who knows?”
“ICE thinks that by removing the leaders, they can destroy the movement.”
Ragbir’s detention was the second such arrest of a New Sanctuary Coalition leader by ICE in the space of a week. It was only the most recent and public in a series of developments that advocates believe is part of a concerted effort to intimidate and dismantle the immigration rights movement in New York City. Coalition members say unmarked cars with heavily tinted windows have begun surveilling churches and movement leaders’ homes. Clergy who work with New York’s immigrant communities say that ICE agents have repeatedly entered church property and interrogated people as they come and go from houses of worship.
The events in New York are taking place against a national backdrop of escalating actions against prominent immigrant rights figures. On December 20, ICE agents in Washington state began deportation proceedings against Maru Mora-Villalpando, founder of an organization that leads weekly rallies and vigils outside the gates of Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. In Colorado, ICE detained the husband of Ingrid Encalada Latorre, an undocumented Peruvian mother who has been taking sanctuary in Denver-area churches since 2016.
“It seems like they’re trying to create an atmosphere of uncertainty where nobody feels safe,” said Nathan Yaffe, a lawyer who works with the New Sanctuary Coalition to help people file asylum applications. “At the same time, they’re trying to exile our moral leaders in order to break the movement.”
“ICE thinks that by removing the leaders,” Yaffe added, “they can destroy the movement.”
On the morning of January 3, a week before Ragbir was scheduled to check in at ICE’s Field Office in Lower Manhattan, his colleague Jean Montrevil had just left work and was on his way home to Queens. Arriving outside his house, he was stopped by ICE officials, according to his lawyer, Joshua Bardavid. The stop came as a surprise – Montrevil wasn’t scheduled for his next ICE check-in until March, and he had never missed a scheduled appointment with immigration officials. A business owner and father of four, he was hardly a flight risk.
“We war-gamed this over and over. This was the best time and place to take him.”
Montrevil emigrated from Haiti with a green card in 1986, but was convicted a few years later, while still a teenager, on drug charges. He served a five-year prison sentence. In the nearly 30 years since his juvenile conviction, Montrevil has by all accounts been a model citizen. “He got married, had four children, started a company, and showed that what he did when he was 17 was not who he was,” Bardavid said. “He made a serious mistake, and he made all the amends he could and then some.”
A judge, however, had found that Montrevil was deportable shortly after his conviction — a determination made without allowing the young Haitian a lawyer or witnesses, Bardavid said. Montrevil has been fighting to correct that error ever since. Montrevil continued to check in periodically with ICE as he waited for a ruling in his appeal. After the last check-in over the summer, his first under the Trump administration, he believed that he had reached an understanding with ICE officials, Bardavid said: As long as the appeal was pending, ICE would hold off on deportation proceedings.
That understanding was shattered on January 3, when ICE agents arrested Montrevil outside his home. Bardavid, along with family and friends in the New Sanctuary movement, scrambled to find him and win his release. By the time Montrevil was located in New Jersey, he was only a few hours away from being transported to ICE’s Krome Detention Center in Florida.
Days later, Bardavid asked Scott Mechkowski, ICE’s deputy Field Office director for New York, why the agency had sent a team to apprehend Montrevil at home months before his scheduled check-in. “We war-gamed this over and over,” Mechkowski said, according to Bardavid. “This was the best time and place to take him.”
On Tuesday morning, Montrevil disappeared from ICE’s online detainee locator database. Shortly afterward, Bardavid learned that he had been deported to Haiti.
The inexplicable surprise detention of one of their leaders set members of the New Sanctuary Coalition on edge. The same night Montrevil was taken into custody, members of Ragbir’s defense committee met at the New Sanctuary Coalition offices at Judson Memorial Chapel in Manhattan to prepare for his ICE check-in the following week.
A little after 9 p.m., Will Coley, a member of Ragbir’s defense committee, was leaving the office when a man in an SUV called out to him through the vehicle’s dark tinted windows.
“He starts asking me where the entrance to the church is,” Coley said. “I said, ‘Well, there are a couple different entrances, what are you looking for?’ He says, ‘Well, my friend is here for a meeting.’ I said, ‘What meeting?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘What’s his name?’ And he said, ‘Tom … Boland?’ It was almost like he made it up on the spot.”
Coley went back into the church offices, but there was no “Tom Boland” to be found. When he went back outside, the man and his SUV had disappeared.
“That’s when I started paying attention to the other cars on the street,” Coley said. Surveying the street, Coley and other New Sanctuary members identified at least three vehicles on the church’s block, all with New York license plates, all parked illegally, all idling, all with distinctive antennas, and all with dark tinted windows.
Coley and a partner decided to speak to the people in the cars. One woman, in a sedan, denied that she was affiliated with immigration enforcement, but declined to say why she was idling on the block.
“I look down on the passenger floorboard, and I see a white license plate that says DHS.”
Looping around the block, Coley and his partner approached a man idling in a minivan. When the man rolled down the window to speak with them, Coley looked into the front seat. “I look down on the passenger floorboard, and I see a white license plate that says DHS,” Coley said. ICE operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Ragbir’s legal team began to wonder whether it was safe for him to go back to his home in downtown Brooklyn that night, or if ICE was preparing to grab him the way it had Montrevil. Coley and two other friends of Ragbir’s decided to take a ride-share to Ragbir’s home to see if it too was under surveillance. Along the way, they picked up Yaffe, the asylum lawyer. The group saw idling vehicles outside Ragbir’s apartment and decided to send Coley up to see if it provoked any reaction. “As soon as he approached the front door, two people in the two front vehicles, who had been looking down, not seeming to pay attention, started craning their necks,” Yaffe said. “When he went in, they started talking on radios. We could hear the distorted noise of radio voices from across the street.”
When he came back down from the apartment a few minutes later, Coley knocked on the windows of the two vehicles, trying to talk with their drivers. Neither would roll down their windows.
Rattled by the day’s events, their minds racing, Ragbir’s friends tried to puzzle out what was going on. Was ICE trying to avoid a media spectacle by taking him in early and clandestinely? When he was called to the ICE Field Office in March, hundreds of supporters had filled Foley Square, outside 26 Federal Plaza; so many reporters had tried to follow him to the check-in that Ragbir wasn’t able to enter the building for 15 minutes. City council members who had accompanied Ragbir were appalled by what they saw in the ICE waiting room and spoke passionately to the press afterward about the inhumanity of ICE’s deportation regime. (ICE declined to answer questions about its alleged surveillance of Judson and Ragbir’s home.)
After the night of the mysterious cars outside his apartment, Ragbir’s friends made sure that wherever he went, he was accompanied by someone at all times.
Two days after Ragbir’s allies saw suspicious cars outside his home, four clergy members affiliated with the New Sanctuary Coalition arrived at ICE’s offices in Manhattan and asked for a meeting. They were invited into an office with Mechkowski, the office’s deputy director.
“It was not many questions from us. It was a lot of him talking to and at us,” said Rev. Micah Bucey, a pastor at Judson Memorial Church. Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Lutheran minister and organizer with the New Sanctuary Coalition, added, “It felt like confession.”
The reverends had gone in intending only to talk about Montrevil, and not the delicate question of Ragbir’s impending check-in, but to their surprise, Mechkowski made the connection himself. “He linked the two,” Bucey said. “He talked about them being the two highest-profile cases in New York City.”
Bucey paraphrased the gist of Mechkowski’s message that day: “My hands are tied by higher-ups. We have to do what we have to do. These are high-profile cases, but you have to understand that deferred status is not a status. If we defer these cases further, it will just go to someone else, and I won’t allow that.” (ICE declined to make Mechkowski available for an interview or to answer questions about his meeting with the pastors.)
Asked by the clergy whether ICE was surveilling Judson Memorial Church, Mechkowski flatly denied it, Ruiz said. “I further asked, ‘You didn’t send anyone to Ravi’s house?’ He said, ‘No, because I know where Ravi lives, and I have seen him walking around, and I could have taken him myself.’ And he mentioned the street. He had it in his mind.”
Bucey and Ruiz said Mechkowski told them that Montrevil’s detention had been done to avoid the sort of noisy protest that had accompanied Ragbir’s previous check-in nine months earlier. “He said they didn’t want the display of wailing kids and wailing clergy,” Bucey said. Mechkowski issued a warning, the reverend said, about Ragbir’s next check-in. According to Bucey, Mechkowski said, “That can’t happen this time around.”
The cars outside Judson aren’t the only alleged instances of houses of worship affiliated with the New Sanctuary movement coming under surveillance. Amandus Derr, senior pastor of St. Peter’s, a Lutheran church on Lexington and 54th Street in Manhattan, said he personally encountered a pair of ICE agents on their way into the church on December 11 as some 300 people were attending Mass.
Derr, who was not leading the proceedings, was walking out of the church on his way home when he encountered two men in overcoats, jackets, and ties, wearing no visible identification. “I asked them if I could help them,” Derr recalled. “They said, ‘We hear there’s a large Hispanic celebration going on.’ They were not Hispanic. I said, ‘Well, there’s a Mass going on right now in our sanctuary. Our bishop is here. Do you want to go to the Mass?’ Their response was, ‘No, we just want to look around and maybe talk to some people. We’re from Immigration and Custom Enforcement.’ I said, ‘Are you looking for someone specific?’ They said no. I said, ‘Do you have a warrant?’ They said no.”
Derr says he took the agents by the elbows and escorted them out of the church and down the block.
“It’s the first time something this clear has happened at our church,” Derr said.
“They said they were from ICE. I told them they couldn’t be on the church steps, on church property, and that person left.”
“There are two principles here,” Derr said. “One is, a house of worship in the United States, maybe not legally, but historically, since forever, is a sanctuary.” Even more disturbing to Derr was the timing, he said: “There was a Mass going on. Interrupting a religious service is illegal.”
The encroachment of ICE agents onto St. Peter’s property isn’t unique. At St. Jacobi, a Lutheran Church in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, the congregation is largely Spanish- and Chinese-speaking and includes many undocumented people. The church often hosts immigration workshops for the community, which are well-attended. But Pastor Gary Mills said he was surprised, at one workshop in the middle of last September, to see a white woman in attendance. “You never see white people in that church or in that neighborhood,” Mills says. “I asked her what she was doing and she said she was with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I asked her if she could please leave the church, which she did.”
Mills says he complained about the incident to the ICE Field Office in Manhattan, where he was told “they would address it.” But a couple of weeks later, Mills was presiding over a Spanish-language Sunday Mass at his other church, Advent Lutheran, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, when ICE made another appearance.
“There was someone who was stopping people on their way out and asking them where they were from,” Mills said. A congregant alerted Mills, who confronted the visitor. “They said they were from ICE. I told them they couldn’t be on the church steps, on church property, and that person left.”
Neither congregation is associated with the New Sanctuary movement, Mills said, but they do provide well-publicized services for undocumented immigrants. The episodes have contributed to an atmosphere of anxiety in the immigrant community. “There’s fear within the community,” Mills said. “Do we dare come into this church or into another house of worship?”
An ICE spokesperson declined to answer The Intercept’s questions about its agents’ alleged presence on church property, instead referring to ICE’s internal policy categorizing places of worship, along with schools, health care facilities, and rallies, as “sensitive locations.” According to that policy, “Enforcement actions may occur at sensitive locations in limited circumstances, but will generally be avoided. ICE officers and agents may conduct an enforcement action at a sensitive location if there are exigent circumstances, if other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location, or with prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official.”
The apparent attack on the New Sanctuary movement, specifically, and advocates of immigrant rights, more broadly, brings longstanding debates over New York City’s cooperation with ICE into sharp relief. Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly proclaimed New York a “sanctuary city,” and city government has taken some steps to protect its residents from ICE. With some significant exceptions, for example, city police and corrections officers don’t comply with ICE requests to prolong the detention of people in their custody so ICE can take them into custody.
Nonetheless, the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, a heavily armed, quick-response unit founded in 2015, worked together with federal officers to clear the way for the vehicle carrying Ragbir out of the Lower Manhattan’s Federal Plaza last week, as protesters tried to block the ambulance’s progress. The NYPD arrested 18 people that morning, including clergy and city council members. The NYPD also provided an escort for the ICE agents transporting Ragbir, first to a hospital, then to an ICE detention center in Manhattan, and finally to the city boundary at the entrance of the Holland Tunnel, as Ragbir was shuttled to Newark Airport, where he would be put on a plane to Florida.
“When the police are clearing the street to make sure they have a smooth way to the detention center, that is cooperation.”
A police spokesperson told The Intercept that the NYPD does not routinely provide escorts for ICE detainee transport. “Last week’s interaction with DHS/ICE was based solely on the overall public safety issues which existed at the time,” the spokesperson said. “The reason for SRG accompanying DHS/ICE to the Holland Tunnel was due to the fact that earlier that day there was an incident that created a potentially dangerous traffic situation with protesters and street crowds, and we wanted to insure that we had resources immediately available to deal with such an incident within the city limits.”
That explanation wasn’t reassuring to some members of the New Sanctuary Coalition, who wondered how police cooperation with the attempted deportation of a nonviolent immigration rights leader could be squared with de Blasio’s repeated commitment to make New York itself a “sanctuary.” “When the police are clearing the street to make sure they have a smooth way to the detention center, that is cooperation,” said Ruiz, one of the clergymen arrested that day.
Leaving the New Sanctuary offices at Judson Memorial Chapel the night of Ragbir’s detention, a longtime volunteer for the movement said she had another troubling interaction with the police. Speaking through a translator and requesting not to be identified by her real name because of her immigration status, Silvia, a Mexican woman in her 40s who lives in Harlem, said she had left the church around 9:30 p.m. The blocks between the church entrance were lined with parked police vehicles, she said. “I was walking with my daughter, nieces, brother, and sister-in-law,” she said. “A white policeman stopped me. I saw his silver badge. He said, ‘Señora!’ And then, in English, he asked me why we were coming out of that building, what we were doing in there.” Pretending to misunderstand, Silvia gestured at a nearby New York University building. “‘NYU? I’m not coming out of NYU,’ I said. ‘Why? Why are you asking?’ But the officer wouldn’t answer, and he told me to move along.”
A police spokesperson told The Intercept that, while there was an increased police presence in the neighborhood that night, it was related to a different event down the block from Judson church and unrelated to the New Sanctuary movement.
A week after he was first detained, Ravi Ragbir remained in ICE custody in Florida. His lawyers petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court contesting the legality of his detention, and a federal judge has issued a temporary stay of deportation, directing ICE not to move Ragbir away from New York. ICE initially balked at returning Ragbir, but after a January 16 hearing, at the judge’s urging, ICE officials agreed to return Ragbir to detention in the New York area while his legal challenge is resolved.
ICE declined to answer a long list of specific questions from The Intercept for this article, and instead offered a general statement. “Mr. Ragbir is the subject of a final removal order,” the statement said. The statement said that, at the time, Ragbir was being “transported back to New York pending resolution of his court proceedings.” (He arrived at an Orange County, New York, detention facility on Thursday.) In addition to acknowledging the ongoing court proceedings, however, ICE also said Ragbir had “exhausted his petitions and appeals” — a statement representatives for Ragbir said was false, pointing to an open court case and a motion to reopen immigration proceedings.
The New Sanctuary Coalition’s core work, connecting immigrants with legal counsel, assisting with asylum applications, and accompanying people to their immigration court dates and ICE check-ins, continues, at least for the moment, unimpeded.
People close to New Sanctuary, however, say they are concerned that something fundamental has changed in recent weeks and that federal immigration enforcement is targeting their movement.
Joshua Bardavid, the lawyer of the now-deported New Sanctuary leader Jean Montrevil, said that the events of the last two weeks leave him with no doubt that ICE is targeting leaders of the immigrant rights movement. “This was not just ICE going about its daily business, this was a plan,” Bardavid said. “There is absolutely no way that Jean and Ravi were targeted with detention the same day and other places that support them were surveilled and had to deal with federal agents all on the same day. There are few things I’m so certain of.”
Montrevil’s deportation signals a disturbing legal shift, Bardavid said: The Haitian activist’s challenge to his underlying order of removal was still pending when he was deported. “It’s absolutely new for ICE to be deporting people who still have open appeals,” he said.
Bardavid believes the actions against the New Sanctuary Coalition leaders must have required approval beyond ICE’s New York Field Office, at the national level. “This means there’s a group of government officials who got together and made this decision,” he said. “That’s terrifying. It means there are people who want to undercut the immigrant rights movement. It means that the government no longer sees that it has an obligation or a reason to talk with immigrant rights organizations and has no problem destroying what dialogue and relationship existed.”
Bucey, the Judson pastor, said that while he believes ICE has targeted Ragbir and Montrevil for deportation in an effort to weaken the movement, he doesn’t think it will work, because the movement they built empowers immigrants to be their own leaders. “All these tendrils have grown out of the wounds of these chopped-off limbs,” Bucey said. “It’s an entire community now, not just a little institution led by a few people.”
Sylvia, the New Sanctuary member who described her encounter with a police officer, admits that the events of the last weeks have left her so terrified that she frequently finds her legs shaking uncontrollably. “They’re trying to intimidate people and make people afraid so that they win the battle,” Sylvia said in an interview at the New Sanctuary offices. “But I’m not going to let them win. When you fall in a river, your instinct is to float, and for me to float is to keep coming here, to keep fighting. I feel I can be useful to other families, and that makes me feel good.”