U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is unconstitutionally using its power to suppress political dissent by targeting outspoken immigration activists for surveillance and deportation, according to allegations in a federal lawsuit filed on Friday by immigration rights groups.

“Defendants have investigated, surveilled, harassed, raided, arrested, detained, and even deported these activists in order to silence them,” the complaint alleges. “This sharp spike in immigration enforcement specifically targeting the most vocal immigration activists is intended to stifle dissent.”

“The Government’s targeting of activists on the basis of their core political speech is unfair, discriminatory, and un-American,” the lawsuit adds. “And it violates the First Amendment.”

The lawsuit came after a report from The Intercept detailing the fears of immigration rights activists with the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City that their movement was being surveilled by the government. In the space of a week in January, ICE detained two of the group’s leaders, Jean Montrevil and Ravi Ragbir. Montrevil was deported to Haiti while Ragbir’s deportation was stayed by a judge because of ongoing legal proceedings.

“This sharp spike in immigration enforcement specifically targeting the most vocal immigration activists is intended to stifle dissent.”

“Like so many people who are living in this country under the threat of deportation, I know how important it is to raise our voices against the injustices in the system,” Ragbir said in a statement. “This lawsuit is not just about me, it is about all of the members of our community who are speaking out in our struggle for immigrant rights.”

Shortly after the judge halted Ragbir’s deportation and returned him to his family, the longtime activist was informed that ICE had scheduled his deportation for Saturday, February 10, a day after he was slated to appear in court in one of his ongoing cases.

Upon learning of the lawsuit on Thursday, however, ICE agreed to back off its threat to deport Ragbir imminently. He will still be required to check-in on Saturday, but the government will hold off on the deportation proceedings until the court has a chance to rule on the request for a preliminary injunction he made as part of the lawsuit.

After his stay was finalized and the lawsuit was filed, ICE officials informed Ragbir’s legal team that he would no longer be required to check-in with ICE on February 10. Instead, he was summoned for a March 15 meeting at ICE’s office in downtown New York.

The lawsuit was brought by Ragbir and the New Sanctuary Coalition; the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group composed of immigrant rights organizations; CASA de Maryland, another immigrant rights group covering mid-Atlantic states; the National Immigration Law Project of the National Lawyers Guild, which provides legal counsel to immigrants facing deportation; and the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition focused on immigration detention issues.

The plaintiffs are represented jointly by the Immigrant Rights Clinic of New York University Law School, led by Alina Das, and by lawyers with the Washington, D.C., firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, several of whom are fresh off a successful challenge to Republican gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.

As defendants, the lawsuit names ICE and its acting director; the director and assistant director of ICE’s New York Field Office; the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency; Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen; and the Justice Department, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make,” said ICE’s Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Matthew Albence. “Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate.” The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on pending litigation and the Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit focuses on the case of Ragbir and the New Sanctuary Coalition. Ragbir, who has lived in the United States for more than a quarter century, received an order of deportation in 2006 after being convicted of wire fraud, having been charged with processing fraudulent mortgage loan applications. After a year and a half in immigration detention, Ragbir was released on the condition that he check in regularly with ICE officials. He did so for the next decade while throwing himself into the work of the New Sanctuary Coalition, which offers legal, logistical, and emotional support to people navigating the immigration system.

After Donald Trump’s inauguration, however, Ragbir’s position became more precarious. When he was ordered to check in to the ICE field office in Lower Manhattan last March, hundreds of supporters and a swarm of news media gathered outside, while New York City Council members and members of the State Assembly accompanied him into 26 Federal Plaza for his check-in.

A showing of political support for Ravi Ragbir antagonized ICE officials, the lawsuit alleges.

That showing of political support antagonized ICE officials, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the complaint, Scott Mechkowski, assistant director of ICE’s New York Field Office, told Ragbir’s lawyer this year that he felt “resentment” about the March 2017 check-in. Mechkowski told the lawyer he “was angry about the presence of the elected officials in 26 Federal Plaza, specifically naming [then-City Council Speaker] Melissa Mark-Viverito and ‘that guy from Brooklyn.’” The complaint surmises that this last reference is to City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who stood his ground last year when an ICE official who refused to identify himself — but whom the lawsuit identifies as Mechkowski — ordered Ragbir and his team to vacate a hallway where they were conferring.

The lawsuit also cites accounts of a conversation between Mechkowski and a delegation of clergy who had visited him in January, in which Mechkowski reportedly said that Ragbir and Montrevil, the now-deported New Sanctuary Coalition leader, were the two “highest-profile” cases in his office. Montrevil was taken into custody outside his home and deported in January, despite posing no flight risk and having a scheduled check-in in March. Clergy members told The Intercept that Mechkowski said Montrevil’s surprise deportation was engineered to avoid the sort of noisy political demonstration that accompanied Ragbir’s March 2017 check-in.

A week after Montrevil was detained, Ragbir went to his scheduled check-in and was taken into custody. ICE’s attempt to deport Ragbir departed from its usual script. Most New Yorkers in his situation would have been taken to a separate ICE facility in Lower Manhattan for processing, then transferred to detention in New Jersey for days or weeks before being moved to immigration detention facilities elsewhere in the country. Ragbir, however, was taken without delay to Newark Airport and was on a flight to Florida before the day was over. His lawyers rushed to secure a court order to prevent ICE from moving him out of the New York area, but ICE officials would later claim that Ragbir was already in the air by the time they had learned of the order. It was only after a federal judge issued a scathing ruling compelling his release that ICE reluctantly discharged Ragbir on January 29.

When he was released, Mechkowski, the ICE deputy field office director, insisted on driving Ragbir back to the New Sanctuary Coalition offices himself. Mechkowski also had some news to personally deliver: Ragbir was to present himself at the ICE field office in Lower Manhattan for deportation, on the morning of February 10, a Saturday. The ordered check-in, scheduled the day after a federal hearing in New Jersey on Ragbir’s motion to overturn his original conviction, was unusual because ICE does not ordinarily conduct check-ins or other public business on Saturdays, and because federal courts, to which Ragbir’s lawyers might make emergency appeals should he be detained, are closed on weekends. Ragbir was directed to present himself for deportation with “one piece of luggage not to exceed 44 pounds.”


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Daniela Vargas speaks about the recent immigration raid that picked up more than 50 allegedly undocumented immigrants, including her father and brother, during a news conference on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, at the Jackson, Miss., city hall.

Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

ICE’s use of its powers to intimidate, suppress, and exile political critics goes well beyond Ragbir and the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York, the lawsuit alleges.

“This lawsuit comes at an important time because Ravi’s case is, sadly, not isolated,” said Alina Das, Ragbir’s longtime attorney. “He is one of many immigrant activists who have been targeted in recent weeks and months with these adverse immigration actions because they are calling out the injustices in the immigration system. If we don’t call the government out for what it’s doing, this kind of targeting will only increase. This lawsuit presents our opportunity to hold the government to its own word, to uphold the law, which includes the Constitution and the First Amendment.”

The complaint cites similar recent incidents around the country.

Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old activist who came to the United States from Argentina when she was 7, was detained by ICE agents last March as she was leaving a news conference in Jackson, Mississippi, where she had spoken on the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that stayed her own deportation for lacking immigration status.

The same month, in Vermont, ICE arrested José Enrique Balcazar Sanchez and Zully Victoria Palacios Rodriguez, two leading organizers with Migrant Justice, a workers rights organization. Palacios Rodriguez’s lawyer, Matt Cameron, told the Boston Globe that the offense she was arrested for – overstaying her visa by some eight months – wouldn’t usually attract ICE’s attention, and that it’s especially unusual for such a person to be held without bail, as his client was.

A couple months later, two more Migrant Justice activists, Yesenia Hernández-Ramos and Esau Peche-Ventura, were arrested by a Border Patrol agent and transferred to ICE custody after taking part in a march outside a Ben and Jerry’s plant to demand better working conditions for farmworkers supplying milk to the ice cream giant.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t silence immigrant-rights activists like Mr. Ragbir by deporting them.”

In December, ICE began deportation proceedings against Maru Mora-Villalpando, a 47-year-old activist who came from Mexico more than 25 years ago and is an outspoken critic of ICE’s deportation and detention practices in the Seattle area.

Also in December, Baltazar Aburto Gutierrez, a 35-year-old clam harvester in Washington state, was detained after he was quoted in local papers talking about his girlfriend’s recent deportation. “You’re the one from the newspaper,” Aburto Gutierrez says the ICE agent who detained him said. “My supervisor asked me to come find you because of what appeared in the newspaper.”

In January, ICE agents in Colorado arrested Eliseo Jurado after his wife Ingrid Encalada Latorre publicly took sanctuary in a Boulder church to avoid deportation to Peru.

Amer Othman Adi, a 57-year-old deli owner from Youngstown, Ohio, was slated to be deported after 37 years in the United States, when ICE granted a temporary stay on January 7. After ICE took him into custody a week later, Adi began a hunger strike. As his case began to draw media attention, a local member of Congress introduced special legislation to allow Adi to stay. After the bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee, ICE revoked its stay, and Adi was deported to Jordan on January 29.

In many of these cases, ICE has publicly denied that the detentions and deportation proceedings are retaliation for political speech. Ragbir and the organizations bringing the lawsuit will seek to prove that they are. The suit seeks a ruling that the government has been violating immigrant activists’ First Amendment rights; an injunction restraining the government from selectively enforcing immigration laws based on individuals’ political speech anywhere in the country; and an injunction specifically barring government officials from taking steps to deport Ragbir unless they can prove that they aren’t doing so in retaliation for his political speech.

Mindful of how unusually swift ICE was to move Ragbir out of the New York area last month, and with the unusual Saturday deportation check-in hanging over them, Ragbir’s legal team planned to file a temporary injunction restraining ICE from removing him from the country until their plea for a restraining order could be ruled on in court.

But when they notified government lawyers Thursday morning that they would be filing the lawsuit, the government decided that it didn’t want to argue in court for their ability to deport Ragbir before the case could be argued. Instead, both sides together filed an agreed order, stating that ICE won’t undertake Ragbir’s deportation until a judge rules on Ragbir’s motion for a preliminary injunction, which won’t happen until March 14 at the earliest.

“Justice was restored today, at least temporarily, as Mr. Ragbir is now able to remain in the United States and free until the court reviews his constitutional claims,” said R. Stanton Jones of Arnold & Porter, representing the plaintiffs. “If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t silence immigrant-rights activists like Mr. Ragbir by deporting them. We look forward to presenting these grave constitutional claims to the court.”

The stay negotiated Thursday means Ravi Ragbir won’t be deported yet. For the next month, at least, Ragbir remains a free man in America. He said he intends to spend that time to do the same work he’s been doing for the last decade: speaking out against the injustices of the immigration system that he and so many others are caught up in.

Update: Feb. 9, 2018
This story has been updated to include a comment from ICE and the Department of Homeland Security’s refusal to comment. Additionally, the story has been updated to note a change in ICE’s schedule for meeting with Ragbir, which was announced after publication of this article. Ragbir, according to his lawyers, no longer has to check-in with ICE on February 10; instead his appointment with the agency was set for March 15. 

Top photo: Ravi Ragbir, center, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago and executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, speaks during a press conference held on his behalf, as he fights deportation, on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, at New York City Hall.