A string of efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in recent months to deport immigration rights leaders points to a new policy of targeting groups that oppose the agency, according to immigration activists and observers. ICE denies these claims, but critics cite evidence from cities across the country. The deportations stem from the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, presenting the troubling possibility that high-profile deportations will continue impeding legal political activism.
ICE took action in January against two prominent members of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, an organization that helps immigrants seeking asylum navigate visa processes and immigration hearings. On January 16th, Jean Montrevil, the co-founder of the organization, was deported to Haiti after being picked up by ICE off the street on his way to work. Montrevil came to the U.S. legally from Haiti in 1986 and was ordered to be deported after felony convictions related to drug possession. However, after serving 11 years in prison, he was allowed to stay in the U.S. as part of a supervised program for deportable immigrants. Montrevil married an American woman, had three sons and started a small business, all while resisting successive efforts by ICE to deport him—until January of this year.
“I have been under supervision for 15 years, and I’ve never violated. I have always made my appointment. And I stay out of trouble. I have volunteered, and I work and take care of my kids. I pay taxes every year. I did everything right. Everything they asked me to do, I have done it. So why target me now?” asked Montrevil in a long-distance interview with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman.
Many believe Montrevil’s activism motivated ICE to deport him. Ravidath Ragbir, Executive Director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, was taken into custody by ICE agents just after Montrevil. His story mirrors Montrevil’s. Ragbir moved to the U.S. more than 20 years ago and became a legal permanent resident. In 2001, he was convicted of wire fraud conspiracy for his role in a mortgage business that came under investigation. After two and half years in prison, he was ordered to be deported. Wary of Montrevil’s arrest off the street—an open place with little protection—Ragbir’s supporters were there to resist when ICE moved against him. Police arrested more than 18 people in an attempt to stop an ambulance carrying the immigration rights leader out of the city. ICE moved Ragbir to the Krome Detention Center in Florida, awaiting deportation. Thanks to efforts by his lawyers, he is now in detention back in New York, awaiting a court hearing challenging his deportation.
Despite New York’s status as a “sanctuary city,” often touted by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York Police Department’s Strategic Response Group worked with federal officers to clear the way for Ragbir’s arrest and transportation. In a statement, they cited traffic safety concerns. The move highlights the fact that sanctuary city policies vary widely across the country.
In Chicago last year, Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez was injured when ICE agents burst into his home without a warrant, due to the Chicago Police Department’s inclusion of his name in a gang database. This effectively made him illegible for Chicago’s sanctuary protections, despite shaky evidence for of any gang affiliation. After 10 months in custody, Catalan-Ramirez was finally released.
Beyond exploiting holes in sanctuary city protections and using decades-old criminal convictions to justify deportations, ICE is said to be targeting immigration rights leaders with no criminal records. In December, the agency initiated deportation proceedings for Maru Mora-Villalpando, the founder of an organization in Washington that leads protests outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. She is undocumented and claims immigration officials are using an “intimidation tactic” to discourage her political activism.
Kica Matos, a spokeswoman for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement told the Washington Post, “This latest tactic is something we might expect from generals in a tin-pot dictatorship, not federal officers in a 240-year-old democracy. Arresting immigrant activists who speak up is meant to sow fear in immigrant communities and stop political protest.”
The tactics have also received condemnation from congressional representatives from New York in an open letter to the Department of Homeland Security. They are consistent with a Trump administration that has made efforts to rescind Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) protections. Trump’s executive orders have already resulted in the construction of more detention facilities and the hiring of an additional 10,000 ICE officers. They have also broadened the scope of ICE’s efforts, including making anyone who could be considered a public safety threat in the eyes of an immigration officer an enforcement priority.
Trump’s policies build on an already extensive network of immigration enforcement and detention. In 2016, the U.S. government detained nearly 360,000 people in a system of over 200 immigration jails around the country, administered by ICE and subcontracted to private prison companies.
If ICE tactics of stifling civic dissent through targeting deportations are to continue, the media must be more involved in covering the agency, according to some critics. Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman called for media outlets to centre undocumented voices and coverage of ICE deportations in an interview with CNN this week. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watch group, has previously documented major outlets publishing ICE press reports word for word, in what it calls “copy-and-pasting press releases.” More critical reporting may play a key role in shining light on ICE’s practices under the Trump administration and mobilizing popular opposition to targeted deportation.
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