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Court Rules Immigrant Activist Ravi Ragbir's First Amendment Rights May Have Been Violated

Ravi Ragbir in 2017
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Ravi Ragbir in 2017 AP/Shutterstock

A federal appeals court has found Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may have violated immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir's First Amendment rights when it tried to deport him last year.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan said Ragbir's advocacy on immigration reform is "core political speech," and that it's “plausible” ICE tried to deport him in retaliation for organizing protests against the agency.

The court ruled that District Court Judge Kevin Castel made a mistake last year when he found he didn’t have jurisdiction to intervene. It ordered him to determine whether Ragbir’s First Amendment rights were, in fact, violated. The lower court also has to issue a temporary injunction barring the government from removing Ragbir in the meantime.

Writing for the majority, Circuit Judge Christopher Droney noted that Ragbir presented no national security threats. He also said there’s an exception for courts to intervene when an immigrant faces deportation if there’s a claim of “outrageous conduct” by the government.

“First Amendment speech is preeminent among the liberties that the Constitution protects,” Droney wrote. He said Ragbir’s “plausible allegations and evidence” that the government detained him last year in retaliation for his advocacy met the definition of outrageous conduct described by a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case brought by Arab Americans who claimed they were unfairly targeted for deportation.

Rabir’s attorneys and fellow advocates claimed the director of ICE’s New York City field office, Scott Mechkowski, complained about how Ragbir’s protests in 2017 were leading to negative press about ICE. They said these complaints were made just days before Ragbir’s arrest by ICE in January, 2018, at what was supposed to be a routine check-in.

They claimed Mechkowski also warned Ragbir’s colleague at the New Sanctuary Coalition, Jean Montrevil, not to “make matters worse by saying things.” Montrevil was subsequently detained and deported back to Haiti.

So far there’s been no response from the government on the ruling.

“I cannot begin to express my gratitude to all those who have stood with us in this struggle. It humbles me to know that not only will my voice be protected, but that together we can protect the voices of so many people who are living in this country under the threat of deportation,” Ragbir said in a statement. “It was all of our voices together that made this decision possible and we have to continue to speak out against the travesty of our deportation system.”

Ragbir’s attorney, Alina Das, co-director of NYU’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, called the decision a win for immigrants facing deportation because it found they do, in fact, have First Amendment rights.

“Previously we were living in this world where ICE was able to simply say it doesn’t even matter, no court gets the power to look at what we’re doing,” she explained. “And this court is saying no, that’s not true.

“So it’s opening the door for people who have been targeted to present their evidence. And if their evidence is similarly plausible and credible, that they can then proceed to challenge ICE’s actions and hold them accountable.”

Ragbir, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, was a green card holder until he was convicted in 2001 for wire fraud in New Jersey, and served 30 months in prison. Afterwards, the government granted him four different stays of removal, with supervisory check-ins, because he was not considered a high priority for deportation.

Ragbir’s detention in January of 2018 led to a large protest in Lower Manhattan and multiple arrests. Two weeks later, Ragbir persuaded a federal judge to release him, and there have been numerous court hearings since then.

In its ruling, the appellate court noted that absent the government’s alleged retaliation in 2018, Ragbir probably wouldn’t be deported until at least 2020.

The ruling by the three-judge panel was not unanimous. In his dissent, Judge John M. Walker, Jr. wrote that any government retaliation against Ragbir had already ended. He said he was also concerned about creating a test for outrageous conduct by the government, which could then become the standard for any future claims by immigrants facing deportation.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering courts and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.

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