"When you look at who they're taking away, it is evident that activists and leaders are being picked up," Ravi Ragbir told The Associated Press. "We know that this is psychological warfare they're instituting against the community so that people will believe there is no hope."
Ragbir, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago who leads the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, a coalition of 150 faith-based pro-immigrant groups, was among a number of activists who have been detained in recent weeks as President Donald Trump's administration has stepped up efforts to deport people with criminal records.
Ragbir was in Washington with his wife on Tuesday to attend Trump's State of the Union address, both as guests of lawmakers. He said afterward that it was difficult to see the reaction from people in the room who "totally bought into what he was saying." He said the president's speech was "filled with cruel, empty, hollow words."
A federal judge on Monday ordered authorities to immediately release Ragbir on the grounds he hadn't been given enough time to say goodbye to his family. U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest expressed "grave concern" over allegations he was targeted for deportation because of his political activities.
In a statement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it "does not target unlawfully present aliens for arrest based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make. Any suggestion to the contrary is irresponsible, speculative and inaccurate."
ICE denied that politics had anything to do with its efforts to remove Ragbir, who it labeled "an aggravated felon."
Ragbir was taken into custody on Jan. 11 after a routine check-in with immigration officials in New York. He previously served 30 months in prison for wire fraud because of work he did for a crooked mortgage company. He said he has been given a deportation order for Feb. 10 but has at least one pending court appeal before then.
The week before his arrest, another leader of the New Sanctuary Coalition, Jean Montrevil, was arrested in the street and deported to Haiti. Montrevil was sentenced to an 11-year prison sentence for selling cocaine.
ICE this month also detained the husband of an immigrant activist in Boulder, Colorado, who got media attention after seeking sanctuary from deportation in a church. An activist and unauthorized immigrant in Bellingham, Washington, also said she was put into deportation proceedings despite not having any criminal record.
On Monday, Forrest ruled Ragbir's sudden detention was "unnecessarily cruel" and ordered his release.
In a footnote, the judge wrote, "The Court also notes with grave concern the argument that petitioner has been targeted as a result of his speech and political advocacy on behalf of immigrants' rights and social justice."
Pro-immigration activists have also raised concerns about political payback in other cases like that of Eliseo Jurado, the husband of an immigrant activist in Boulder, Colorado, who got media attention after seeking sanctuary from deportation in a church, and Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist and unauthorized immigrant from Mexico in Washington state who said she got a letter from ICE putting her in deportation proceedings despite her not having any kind of criminal record.
In both of those cases, ICE has denied any retaliation. Jurado, the agency noted, entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico and has four criminal convictions, including driving while impaired in 2007.
Ragbir's lawyer, Alina Das, claimed in a court filing that ICE moved to deport him because its deputy field office director in New York, Scott Mechkowski, felt personal "resentment" over public protests that occurred during his last annual check-in with immigration officials last March.
Hundreds of demonstrators escorted him to a federal building in Manhattan and chanted while he was inside.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Waterman labeled the claim that Ragbir was targeted as "pure speculation" and said the government had seen no evidence in support of that contention.
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