Originally Published in The Intercept.
January 29 2019, 4:00
New Sanctuary Coalition immigration activist Ravi Ragbir, center, arrives with supporters, lawyers, and politicians for his scheduled appointment with immigration officials on Jan. 28, 2019, in New York City. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
REP. YVETTE CLARKE, D-N.Y., said that what she saw Monday morning while accompanying a New York immigration activist to his mandated check-in at the New York field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement left her with serious concerns about the agency’s secrecy and the way it treats the people it summons to its offices.
“It is very clear to me that there has been some skirting of the law, that the free flow of the public has been obstructed arbitrarily and unilaterally to create a pressurized environment in which human rights could be violated,” Clarke told the immigration activist’s friends and supporters at Foley Square, outside the federal building where the ICE check-in had taken place.
Clarke was accompanying Ravi Ragbir, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, whose attempted deportation by ICE a year ago during a check-in generated a massive street protest and a strident condemnation from the federal bench. Ragbir has several ongoing legal proceedings — including a First Amendment lawsuit alleging that ICE is targeting him for deportation based on his political speech — and federal courts in both the 2nd and 3rd Circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals have issued stays forbidding ICE from deporting him until those proceedings are resolved.
Even so, Ragbir’s supporters weren’t entirely sure that ICE officials wouldn’t attempt to deport him anyway, and so they asked elected officials, including Clarke and current as well as former members of the New York City Council, to escort Ragbir when he kept his appointment at 26 Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan.
Elected officials have joined Ragbir for many of his ICE check-ins in recent years. While there’s no telling whether their presence has made a difference in his treatment, it’s done a great deal to shine a public light on the quotidian workings of the deportation bureaucracy.
When Ragbir attended a check-in in 2017, then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was moved to tears by her conversations with mothers and children waiting without legal representation for meetings that could end in deportation. City Council Member Jumaane Williams called the spectacle “the most un-American thing I’ve seen.”
The City Council members were ordered to leave the hallway afterward by a man who, though he would not identify himself at the time, proved to be Scott Mechkowski, who as deputy director of ICE’s New York field office oversaw the attempted deportation of Ragbir last year. According to Ragbir’s First Amendment lawsuit, Mechkowski later told Ragbir’s lawyers that he still felt “resentment” over the encounter, naming Mark-Viverito and identifying Williams as “that guy from Brooklyn.”
In the interval, ICE has changed its policy, restricting access to the ninth-floor waiting room where people present themselves to find out whether they are being deported. Sara Gozalo, an organizer with the New Sanctuary Coalition, which organizes volunteers to accompany people to their ICE check-ins, said the restrictions began in the summer of 2017. “Their excuse was capacity issues,” Gozalo said, “but I personally accompanied people when the waiting room was empty, and was told I couldn’t go in.” Next, she said, ICE began denying family members entrance to the waiting room, making them wait three floors below in the sixth-floor cafeteria. “I’ve been with people just waiting in the cafeteria for hours, and they don’t know anything until they get the phone call saying their spouse is being deported,” Gozalo said. (ICE did not respond to emailed questions.)
Barring family and supporters from the waiting room isn’t just cruel to people facing difficult circumstances, Gozalo said. “It’s a way for ICE to continue doing their work in the shadows, like secret police,” she said. “It’s much easier to detain someone when nobody’s watching. You don’t have to account for what you’re doing, or deal with a family breaking down, or acknowledge all of the damage you’re doing.”
WHEN RAGBIR TOOK the elevator to the ninth floor this morning, he was accompanied by his lawyers; his wife, Amy Gottlieb; and Clarke. Outside the waiting room, an officer in a Department of Homeland Security uniform, who refused to identify himself beyond the first name “Matt,” informed the group that they had been instructed specifically that only Ragbir and one of his lawyers, Alina Das, would be allowed in. “The wife can’t go in,” the DHS officer said.
Das asked whose order the officer was enforcing, and whether she could speak to him. The officer disappeared briefly, then returned and reiterated the order: The lawyer and the client could go in. Ragbir’s wife and the elected officials supporting him could not. As for the request to discuss the matter, the DHS officer said the ICE supervisor wouldn’t speak to Ragbir’s entourage. “He says he doesn’t have to talk with you,” the DHS officer said of the person giving the orders.
“That’s not true,” responded Clarke, who was recently named to the House Homeland Security Committee, now controlled by fellow Democrats. Clarke eventually made it past the guards, where she began pressing ICE officials to justify the ban. A delegation of current and former City Council members, including Williams and Mark-Viverito, soon joined the delegation on the ninth floor, but were again refused access by the Homeland Security officer.
“I remember last year, it was supposed to be civil, and it wasn’t civil,” the officer said, presumably referring to the street protest that attempted to block Ragbir’s unlawful deportation last January. “So I’m being pre-emptive.”
If the officer remembered some members of the delegation, they remembered him as well. Rhiya Trivedi, one of Williams’s defense lawyers in his trial on obstruction and disorderly conduct stemming from last January’s protest, recognized the officer from the hours of video of the protest she reviewed in preparation for the case. “He’s all over the tape shoving people,” Trivedi said.
After a quarter-hour or more, Clarke emerged into the hallway to announce that after her conversation with ICE officials, Gottlieb and the elected officials would be allowed into the waiting room. But she was quickly countermanded by the Homeland Security officer, and the stand-off continued until Ragbir and Das emerged from the meeting room. He was free to go, but must check in again in six months.
Back downstairs, Clarke said she found the entire episode troubling.
“I observed what I believe are a number of unilateral policies that aren’t necessarily in law or statute that we’ll be reviewing,” she said. “I am not casting aspersions on the workers here at all; they are simply following instructions. I found it interesting that in the back and forth about the public space, a call was made to Washington for guidance. So we know where these unilateral decisions are coming from, and it is now my responsibility, along with my colleagues, to get this right. Every elected official here should have the right to be by Ravi’s side observing the governance of this place. Amy, his wife, deserves to be by his side during this time of trial.”
Clarke, who was returning to Washington immediately, said her first order of business would be to speak with the new Democratic Homeland Security Committee chair “about the policies, practices and procedures in respect to removal, due process, and public accommodation for those who have to utilize the services of the Department of Homeland Security.”
Looking drained after the morning’s events, Gottlieb, Ragbir’s wife, said the new rules are needlessly cruel. “If there’s no public safety reason to not have people in there, why do this, except with the intention to really dehumanize?” she asked. “ICE refuses to be subjected to any oversight, and we’re going to continue to do everything we can to expose that.”