“My wife is having a difficult time today,” Ravi Ragbir said one February afternoon, in an Uber ride through Manhattan. “In the morning she was breaking down, this is a difficult space —” A wailing police car interrupted him. He held his breath as it sped past. “I thought they were stopping us!” Ragbir said when he exhaled. Disruptions like this are common for him. “I probably need a ton of therapy,” he half-joked.
Ragbir, 53, is one of the most famous immigrant activists in the United States. He has been lauded as a community leader and seems to enjoy being the public face of the movement, despite a felony conviction that makes his case more nuanced than most. His army of supporters has been working to find ways to push his deportation date—Ragbir’s next U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-in was recently moved from March 16 to May 11—but 12 years of activism and uncertainty have come at a cost.
He has been anxious. Loud noises and sirens trip him up. And, as his options for a reprieve dwindle, Ragbir can’t bring himself to tie up loose ends. “Work is a coping mechanism,” he told Newsweek. “It’s one way to avoid thinking about the issues, it’s one way to not emotionally deal with what is happening, because I can focus on other things.”
But at night, those emotions creep in. He’s not sleeping well. “Things are getting left behind, you know, we’re not taking care of the house or buying food or cooking as much as we used to,” said his wife Amy Gottlieb.
In January, Ragbir was detained by ICE during a standard check-in. He spent nearly two weeks at a detention center in Miami, and it seemed like he would almost certainly be deported to Trinidad. Gottlieb penned a column for The New York Times saying Ragbir’s activism made him an ICE target, and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez visited Ragbir in detention and invited Gottlieb to be her guest to the State of the Union.
And on January 29, a federal judge issued an unusual ruling that Ragbir’s detention was “unnecessarily cruel.” She ordered ICE to free him until February 15th so that he could properly say goodbye to his family. “The process that is due here is the allowance that he know and understand that the time has come, that he must organize his own affairs, and that he must do so by a date certain,” Katherine Forrest wrote. “That is what is due. That is the process required after a life living among us.”
His celebrity in the activist community blossomed into national notoriety. Ragbir didn’t say goodbye to his family. Instead he began a month-long nonstop tour of churches, rallies, press and advocacy meetings, and court dates. Ragbir’s team worked tirelessly to find any possible loopholes in his case, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wrote a letter urging ICE to allow Ragbir to stay. Velazquez introduced a private bill to grant him legal status.
“It’s all about work. To cancel my meetings and go home and say goodbye would be to give up,” he said.
Ragbir entered the U.S. on a temporary visa in 1991. Within a few years he was married, with a daughter and working at a mortgage company. He obtained permanent residency through his wife.
Then, he was convicted of processing fraudulent loan applications. He served time in prison and under house arrest, and was ordered to pay $350,001 in restitution. Ragbir filed for bankruptcy, and his marriage fell apart. Though he maintains he did not commit the crime, a judge ordered his deportation in 2006. He spent two years in a detention facility while he appealed the judgement. Eventually, a team of lawyers got him released on the condition that he abide by a curfew, wear an ankle bracelet and check in with ICE three times a week.
Ragbir reinvented himself as an immigration advocate and eventually took on the role of executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith network of congregations and organizers working to protect immigrant families from detention and deportation. Through his work he met Gottlieb, an immigration lawyer and a U.S. citizen. They married in 2010.
In 2011, Ragbir caught a break. President Obama issued two memos clarifying a process called prosecutorial discretion, and making nonviolent offenders like Ragbir a low priority for detention. But when President Donald Trump was elected, he swiftly issued an executive order telling ICE to prioritize deporting undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of a crime.
Challenging Ragbir’s conviction, however, has long been part of his legal team’s strategy. Alina Das—a friend and his lawyer from the New York University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic—has maintained there were “fundamental errors made in Ravi’s original conviction,” like incorrect instructions from the judge. Overturning this charge has been the lynchpin in Ragbir’s case and the most realistic way to keep him in the country. For now, his lawyers have filed for an order to stay his removal until the appeal over his conviction is resolved.
Das also filed a first amendment lawsuit against ICE, saying that the enforcement agency was purposely targeting immigrant rights activists to repress their voices. (Ragbir’s wife Gottlieb made similar accusations in her op-ed for The New York Times.) “The facts in this case are so outrageous and in particular the concept that the government is specifically going after people who are speaking out against what they are doing,” she said. “I think it will be a groundbreaking lawsuit and probably the start of more to come.”
ICE denied such allegations. The agency does not target “unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make,” Matthew Albence, ICE executive associate director, told Newsweek.
This week, Ragbir was granted another reprieve. His check-in date with ICE was delayed until May, and he will be able to stay in the country until the judge hearing his first amendment lawsuit makes a motion. There is also the chance that the judge in New Jersey hearing the appeal of his original legal case issues a longer stay.
The last time his case was put over, Ragbir’s relief was short-lived. “I’m not allowed to feel sad, but it is getting tiring to not be able to unwind, to not be able to just relax for a moment,” he said. “There’s still so much to do, you don’t know how much is left until you don’t have the time to do it anymore.”
Sometimes Ragbir said he thinks about giving up and leaving. But, it’s “not as simple as that.” He’s at once fighting for his right to stay, and for other immigrant families as well, whose voices—and supporters—are not as loud as his own. But when the sirens cause him to jump, or he loses sleep at night, the truth is clearer and more primal.
“I just don’t know how to say goodbye,” he said.