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Immigration activist in 1st Amendment case staves off deportation for now

Immigration activist in 1st Amendment case staves off deportation for now
Ravi Ragbir, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago who leads the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, listens during a news conference called by city council members on his behalf as he fights deportation on Jan. 31, 2018, at New York City Hall. (Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press)

An immigration activist whose long battle over deportation has drawn support from Democratic politicians in New York won't have to leave the country before a 1st Amendment lawsuit is heard.

Ravi Ragbir, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, says in a lawsuit that immigration officials have wrongly targeted him and other activists in an effort by the federal government to silence dissent.

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"These activists have been surveilled, intimidated, harassed and detained, their homes raided, many have been plucked off the street in broad daylight, and some have even been deported," the lawsuit says.

Ragbir leads the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, a coalition of 150 faith-based pro-immigrant groups. He was taken into custody Jan. 11 after a routine check-in with immigration officials in New York. He had been technically in deportation proceedings for years, after a 2001 wire fraud conviction, because of work he did for a crooked mortgage company. But those proceedings had always been halted.

His detention spawned protests that blocked traffic, and two City Council members were arrested during the rally.

"News of Ravi's extended stay in this country is not only a reason to celebrate, but proof that our work here is not done," said City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who was one of those arrested. "May this encourage us to keep showing up for Ravi and the millions of hardworking immigrants in this country at risk of deportation."

Ragbir was released last week after a federal judge ruled 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.

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.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last month also detained the husband of an immigrant activist in Boulder, Colo., who got media attention after seeking sanctuary from deportation in a church.

In a stipulation dated Thursday, federal prosecutors and Ragbir's lawyers agreed he won't be deported until the case is heard sometime after March 14. Ragbir still must turn up for an immigration hearing Saturday.

The lawsuit argues the activists' political speech is protected by the 1st Amendment, and the government should be barred from wrongly targeting them and spare Ragbir from deportation.

Separately, Ragbir appeared in a court in Newark, N.J., to ask a judge to halt deportation while he appeals the 2001 wire fraud conviction. The judge heard arguments in a courtroom packed with his supporters but didn't immediately issue a ruling.

Scott Thompson, an attorney representing Ragbir, said he was encouraged that U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty "clearly is looking at the case from the right perspective and wants to get it right."

Outside the courthouse, Ragbir said recent immigration cases show that "the harm to families is irreparable, as we've seen. This is a step in the right direction. We need to battle to get access back into the courts for immigrants."

His wife, immigration attorney Amy Gottlieb, said, "We're so grateful to have a little room to breathe. Hopefully the judge will do the right thing."

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