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First Amendment Lawsuit: ICE Targets Immigrant Rights Groups And Activists For Political Speech

A lawsuit brought by immigrant rights groups and filed in the federal district court in the Southern District of New York further alleges Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is targeting immigrant rights activists with repression.

Immigrant rights activist Ravi Ragbir, who recently had his deportation stayed by a federal court, the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, Casa de Maryland, Detention Watch Network, the New York Immigration Coalition and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild are all plaintiffs pursuing the First Amendment lawsuit.

“Federal immigration authorities have specifically targeted prominent and outspoken immigrant rights activists across the country on the basis of their speech and political advocacy on behalf of immigrants’ rights and social justice,” the lawsuit declares [PDF]. “These activists have been surveilled, intimidated, harassed, and detained, their homes have been raided, many have been plucked off the street in broad daylight, and some have even been deported.”

“The ‘broad discretion exercised by immigration officials,’ has been abused in a cynical effort to punish those who disagree with [President Donald Trump’s] administration. To sweep away all opposition. The government’s targeting of activists on the basis of their core political speech is unfair, discriminatory, and un-American. And it violates the First Amendment.”

Ragbir, who is the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, checked in with ICE on January 11. He has faced a “final order of removal” since 2007 but for the past years has been allowed to stay in the United States with his wife and daughter (both U.S. Citizens). In fact, he is from Trinidad and Tobago and has been in the U.S. for 25 years.

He was detained and transferred to a jail in Miami. It immediately sparked a protest that was attacked by New York police, who arrested several people including city council members. The protests led authorities to bring Ragbir back to the New York area, where he was eventually released.

Around the end of January, the Southern District of New York granted Ragbir a writ of habeas corpus that required ICE to let Ragbir go free. The court stated, “[I]t ought not to be—and it has never before been—that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust.”

ICE officials allegedly conducted surveillance of Ragbir and various members of the New Sanctuary Coalition.

The lawsuit additionally notes that Ragbir’s counsel was not informed of where ICE was transferring him when he was sent to a detention center in Florida. Ragbir had to filed a motion to enforce a court order that he be moved back to the New York area in order to force authorities to return him.

ICE agents arrested Jean Montrevil, a Haitian national immigrant rights activist, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition, and green card holder, on January 3. It was mere days before Ragbir’s check-in, which led to his detention. Montrevil was deported to Haiti on January 9. Authorities forced him to leave his four children—all U.S. citizens.

According to the lawsuit, Montrevil’s lawyer asked Scott Mechkowski, the ICE Deputy Field Office Director for New York, why ICE agents were deployed to “apprehend” Montrevil at his home “months before his scheduled check-in.”

“We [ICE] war-gamed this over and over,” Mechkowski apparently replied. “[T]his was the best time and place to take him.”

When clergy met with Mechkowski, he brought up the Ragbir and Montrevil cases and suggested Montrevil’s detention was “intended to avoid the sort of noisy protest that had accompanied” Ragbir’s prior check-in.

“[ICE] didn’t want the display of wailing kids and wailing clergy,” Mechkwoski said. “That can’t happen this time around.”

The lawsuit highlights several other examples of ICE’s practice of targeting immigrants who are critical of the government’s anti-immigration agenda—several of which were previously highlighted at Shadowproof, such as repression against Daniela Vargas, Maru Mora Villalpando, and activists with the Migrant Justice organization in Burlington, Vermont.

Here are a few cases that were not mentioned in Shadowproof’s report on ICE as a tool of political repression:

—Baltazar “Rosas” Aburto Gutierrez was “detained by an ICE agent who explicitly referenced the fact that he had spoken to newspapers in November 2017. Gutierrez was quoted in the press (albeit anonymously in one instance) after his partner was arrested by ICE and deported to Mexico that month. ICE declined to arrest Gutierrez because he did not have a “deportation order.”

Later in December, the lawsuit recounts, the agent who arrested Gutierrez approached him. “You are Rosas,” and, “You are the one from the newspaper.” He added, “My supervisor asked me to come find you because of what appeared in the newspaper.”

—Eliseo Jurado is married to Encalada Latorre, who is a Peruvian woman who took sanctuary in churches in Boulder, Colorado, in December 2016. He came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a teenager, and the couple has two children, who are U.S. citizens. They have been covered extensively in the media.

Local ICE Field Office Director Jeffrey Lynch insisted Jurado’s arrest had nothing to do with his wife taking sanctuary. However, he confirmed the agency took interest in Jurado when they came across him while investigating his wife.

—Amer Othman Adi came to the U.S. when he was 19 years-old. He is now 57 years-old and a businessman, husband, and father. Decades ago, the government accused him of a “sham” marriage to obtain lawful permanent resident status. He faced deportation on January 7 but ICE stayed it temporarily.

The lawsuit indicates Adi was arrested on January 16 and put in detention. Adi launched a hunger strike. Ohio Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan introduced a bill to grant Adi lawful permanent resident status. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security passed this bill and asked ICE to grant Adi a “six-month stay of deportation.” ICE rejected the request and deported Adi to Jordan on January 29.

ICE is effectively chilling any activism by immigrants against its activities.

“In the summer of 2017, ICE officers at 26 Federal Plaza [in New York] began to interfere with the [New Sanctuary] Coalition’s accompaniment program by restricting public access to the ICE check-in room at 26 Federal Plaza—thwarting volunteers from the accompaniment program who sought to assist immigrants during their check-ins. Even clergy who attempted to accompany people at their check-ins were often turned away.”

CASA de Maryland claims it has witnessed ICE targeting its members. It has responded to more than 50 ICE raids.

“Leaders like Missael Garcia and Monica Camacho, two of CASA’s most outspoken activists and both plaintiffs in CASA’s DACA lawsuit, face potential retaliation for continuing to defend their families and their communities.”

Ragbir said, “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. 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.”

“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,” added R. Stanton Jones of Arnold & Porter. (Arnold & Porter and the New York University Immigrant Rights Clinic filed the lawsuit.)

“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.”

Photo by Tony Webster
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."