Trinidadian Activist Who Dodged Deportation Offers His Vision of a True Sanctuary City

"A sanctuary city will only be a sanctuary city if everyone becomes a part of the sanctuary movement," said Ravi Ragbir.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Trinidadian immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir speaking on an Urban Justice Center panel. Madina Toure/Observer

A prominent Trinidadian immigrant activist who staved off deportation last week argued Monday night that New York will only be a true “sanctuary city” when all its residents embrace the notion of shielding immigrants from arrest and expulsion.

Just days ago, dozens of advocates and elected officials joined Ravi Ragbir outside the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building ahead of his yearly check-in with the authorities, where he avoided removal from the country, unlike other similarly situated immigrants in recent weeks.  Ragbir arrived in the United States on a visitor’s visa in 1994 but was convicted of wire fraud in 2001, served five years in prison and was ordered deported in 2006—but received a stay-of-removal in 2011, and gets his case reevaluated annually.

Last night, the organizer for the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC—an interfaith organization that assists undocumented people fighting detention and deportation—asserted Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked Staten Island for raids it conducted last month because of the borough’s conservative, pro-President Donald Trump inclinations.

“They feel safest in Staten Island, they were fully aware where the community would welcome them and allow that to happen,” Ragbir said at a panel discussion at the Urban Justice Center in Manhattan. “So what I wanna say is a sanctuary city will only be a sanctuary city if everyone becomes a part of the sanctuary movement.”

Ragbir noted that the NYPD and Department of Corrections do not comply with federal requests they hold undocumented individuals in custody under most circumstances. But he highlighted that this does not stop ICE from tracking down, detaining and deporting people on its own.

The activist argued that a key step toward an ideal protective environment for those without paperwork would be for more citizens to join the city’s IDNYC municipal identification program. The city created the cards in 2015 with the idea of enabling foreign nationals residing in the five boroughs to open bank accounts and visit relatives in the hospital.

The city initially planned to purge IDNYC’s records at the end of 2016, a measure written into the legislation that created the program out of concern a deportation-happy president might requisition the records. But two Staten Island GOP lawmakers, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis and Assemblyman Ron Castorina, successfully obtained an injunction to prevent the city from flushing the files.

The city announced henceforth that it would no longer keep scanned images of people’s application documents—documents like foreign passports—in its databanks, though it will retain basic identifying information about cardholders.

Ragbir insisted it is “very, very important” that full citizens articipate the program. He also endorsed Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s plan to ban ICE agents from most city property, and called on private business owners to follow suit.

“When we talk about sanctuary, I’m executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition,” he said. “We want to work with the city, we want to work with the schools. We want to create sanctuary restaurants right now. But what we want to do is that everyone needs to understand their role as a citizen in this time, in this new administration.”

Trump signed an executive order shortly after his inauguration severing federal funds to sanctuary cities, although it did not define the term. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mark-Viverito have vowed legal action should the president seek to enforce the fiat.

The Queens-born commander-in-chief has signed decrees calling for the hiring of several thousand new border guards and ICE officials, expanding deportation priorities to include any individual charged with a crime, and constructing of a wall along the Mexican border. And his second attempt at barring travel from several majority-Muslim nations will go into effect on Thursday, after the first one got stalled in federal courts last month.

Mark-Viverito participated in last night’s panel, and asserted that the city’s general policy of noncompliance with ICE have brought down crime in the five boroughs—since, she argued, undocumented victims and witnesses feel safe approaching police.

“All the things that we’ve done, which have helped people come out of the shadows and engage, right, and be actively involved in civic life in this city have made a positive, have made us a safer city, have made us a viable, economically thriving city,” Mark-Viverito said. “All you have to do is look at our indicators when you compare it nationally to where we’re at. So we’re doing something right.”

The speaker came under fire from members of the audience at one point, with advocates attacking her for supporting the hiring of 1,300 new NYPD officers in 2015 and her ongoing parliamentary obstruction of several controversial police reform bills favored by liberals.

But Ragbir, whose group started the “ICE Out of Rikers Campaign,” credited Mark-Viverito with getting federal authorities removed from the incarceration island in 2014.

“That was the biggest thing we never thought would have happened but actually getting it out of that space was huge,” he said. “So I applaud the speaker for making this happen and you know, we just have to keep going forward.”

Trinidadian Activist Who Dodged Deportation Offers His Vision of a True Sanctuary City