Justice and Mercy in the Year of Deportation

You pray. You write. You call your elected officials. You march. You cry. And sometimes – sometimes – justice and mercy prevail.

Yesterday, Barbara, Peter and I joined the “Jericho Walk” with hundreds of others organized by the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City. Our walk was a silent vigil of prayer around the Federal office building in lower Manhattan that houses Immigration & Customs Enforcement (“ICE”). As every immigrant knows, ICE is rapidly becoming a terrifying organ of the nativist state, turning once-routine visits by compliant law-abiding immigrants into a dark portal to the nether world of expulsion from family, home, church and community.

The ICE building in New York yesterday was the site of a court hearing in the case of Ravi Ragbir, a native of Trinidad who has lived peaceably among us for two decades while regularly checking in with the authorities. Ravi serves as the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition/NYC. Two weeks ago, Ravi reported dutifully to ICE, which seized him, rushed him into detention, and flew him to Miami as a last stop before deportation.

No warning. No time for farewell to his wife, a US citizen, and his children. No time to pack, or organize his affairs at work and home.

In short, Ravi was “disappeared,” a verb well understood in Pinochet’s Chile or Peron’s Argentina, but – until now – strange to American ears. Being “disappeared” at the hands of ICE is increasingly the fate of organizers and leaders of groups protecting immigrant rights. It is selective enforcement to decapitate grassroots movements which protect those who are making America great in ways not favored by the nativists in power.

As we marched in silence seven times around the ICE building yesterday, the first words of the prophet Isaiah coursed through my heart, again and again:

“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow…” (Isaiah, chapter 1).

Little did I know that, while I poured out my lament and my plea, inside the Federal courtroom, God was answering our prayer. U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Forrest issued a fundamentally prophetic condemnation of the cruelty that governed ICE’s actions to tear a community leader away from all that’s dear and familiar without warning.

Judge Forrest’s ruling is worth reading in its entirety, and can be downloaded HERE. But if you are among those on the brink of despair that our country remembers how to act with decency, take a moment with these selections to restore your soul:

“There is, and ought to be in this great country, the freedom to say goodbye. That is, the freedom to hug one’s spouse and children, the freedom to organize the myriad of human affairs that collect over time. It ought not 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, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home, and work. And sent away. We are not that country, and woe be the day that we become that country under a fiction that laws allow it. We have a law higher than any that may be so interpreted – and that is our Constitution. The wisdom of our Founders is evident in the document that demands and requires more; before the deprivation of liberty, there is due process; and an aversion to acts that are unnecessarily cruel. These fundamental rights are at issue in this case.

“After having spent nine years in this country without incident, reporting as required to immigration authorities and building a home, a family, and a community, on January 11, 2018, Ravidath Ragbir [Ravi] was suddenly taken into custody. He was informed that his time in this country was at an end; without further ado, without the freedom to say goodbye, he was taken away. This abrupt and by all accounts unnecessary detention, a step in the direction of deportation, was wrong.

“To be sure, there is a complicated statutory scheme that has been written in so many different voices and with so many agendas that it is now akin to a corn maze. That scheme, read as the government here reads it, allows for precisely those acts that occurred on January 11, 2018. Under that reading, [Ravi’s] status was essentially always at will and subject to immediate revocation if a mysterious “travel document” was obtained. How and when said document would be sought, let alone obtained, is unclear. Here [Ravi] was never told that such a document had been applied for and, unless the process requires many years to complete, such a document had not been sought for over a decade. In short, [Ravi] had no reason to suspect that this meeting on January 11, 2018 would result, as it did, in his immediate and abrupt detention.

“The Court in fact agrees with the Government that the statutory scheme – when one picks the path through the thicket in the corn maze – allows them to do what was done here. But there are times when statutory schemes may be implemented in ways that tread on rights that are larger, more fundamental. Rights that define who we are as a country, what we demand of ourselves, and what we have guaranteed to each other: our constitutional rights. That has occurred here.

“In sum, the court finds that when this country allowed [Ravi] to become a part of our community fabric, allowed him to build a life with and among us and to enjoy the liberties and freedom that come with that, it committed itself to allowance of an orderly departure when the time came, and it committed itself to avoidance of unnecessary cruelty when the time came. By denying petitioner these rights, the Government has acted wrongly….”

So to all people of goodwill – friends and strangers – look up, breathe deep, and stand a little taller. Don’t give up praying. Listen as the Spirit leads you: pick up that phone, make that donation, write that email.

One court ruling will not change everything. Ravi Ragbir remains on the pathway to deportation, with thousands of others. Nativist wall-building may seem to rule the day…

… But don’t you believe it. Your God rules every day, even this one.

J. Elwood

  • To learn more about New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, click HERE.
  • To read Judge Forrest’s complete ruling, click HERE.
  • To read Ravi Ragbir’s story, as told by his wife, click HERE.


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