New York immigrant rights activist escapes deportation

Laura BONILLA
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Ravi Ragbir, the director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, speaks at a rally to show solidarity with the countless individuals affected by deportation, March 9, 2017 in New York

For years, Ravi Ragbir has been a prominent New York immigrant rights activist who has helped protect hundreds of undocumented migrants from deportation.

But on Thursday it was his turn, a father of one born in Trinidad and Tobago and living in New York more than 25 years, to come perilously close to being kicked out of Donald Trump's America, all because of a past conviction.

"We are Ravi," "We stand with Ravi," "Ravi we love you," shouted hundreds of supporters accompanying him to his annual date with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, which can end in arrest and expulsion.

He lives in constant fear of being kicked out, now more than ever with the US president vowing to deport migrants -- who like himself have been convicted of a crime and served with deportation orders.

"This is a sea of love that's going to overtake any wall is going to be built," Ragbir told the crowd of rights activists, elected officials, undocumented migrants, priests, rabbis and pastors in Manhattan's Foley Square.

Holding hands, raising their fists, singing or praying, they walked to the court behind Ragbir. An hour later, he was released.

For 15 years, he has lived under a pending deportation order since a wire fraud conviction. He has so far been saved expulsion thanks to a series of deferrals, the last of which is due to expire in 2018.

"I am living in fear," said the tall, thin man in his early 40s with a gray ponytail.

"We worry what's going to happen tomorrow," he told AFP.

- 'Cried all day' -

Ragbir came to the United States on a visitor's visa in February 1991 and went on to acquire a green card, but in 2001 was convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud while working for a mortgage lender.

Ragbir spent three years under house arrest appealing his sentence and two years in a US federal jail.

He was then incarcerated two more years in New Jersey and Alabama, awaiting deportation. His lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to intervene but pending their decision he was forced to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and report to an immigration agent three times a week.

Though he has served his time, and has a US wife and daughter, the government does not want to normalize his immigration status. He does not expect that to change under Trump.

"My wife cried many, many times since November 8," Ragbir told AFP of last year's US election. "On November 9 she cried all day, because she knew the consequences," he added. She is an immigration attorney.

Today he runs the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York, which trains dozens of volunteers to accompany migrants to ICE appointments, which Ragbir says is proven to lower their chances of being deported.

The interfaith network of congregations, organizations and people works to resist detention and keep families together. Ragbir works out of an office at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.

More than a hundred churches, synagogues and mosques are part of the coalition, a number that has soared since Trump's election. Some are willing to grant sanctuary to immigrants as a last resort in case of raids.

"We're religious people and we believe in the power of forgiveness. Our organization was founded to give sanctuary to people with priors," said Reverend Donna Schaper of the Judson Memorial Baptist Church.

The organization, founded in 2007 and with branches in other US cities, was inspired by the 1980s sanctuary movement that enlisted churches to transport, shelter and hide refugees fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Since Trump's election, Schaper says she has felt "devastated."

"We're pretty convinced we're going to have to say goodbye to all the people with whom we have been working during all these years," she told AFP.

Although Ragbir walked free Thursday, his next appointment with a deportation agent is in 2018.