Bridging the Opportunity Divide

They’re Helping to Keep Families Together Just by Showing Up

September 14, 2017
by
They’re Helping to Keep Families Together Just by Showing Up
Immigration activist Ravi Ragbir attends his annual Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-in flanked by faith leaders and other supporters. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
A unique program in New York City pairs undocumented immigrants with faith leaders and other U.S. citizens to provide support in court.

Ravi Ragbir is ready for a fight. For the past two decades, the Trinidadian immigrant has been living in bureaucratic limbo and now, is even more unsure whether he will be able to remain living in the U.S. with his American wife and child.

“Imagine that you can be ripped apart from your children and families without their input. Don’t think that because it’s not your fault, your children won’t feel abandoned. Your children will feel abandoned,” Ragbir says, which is what many immigrant parents and children feel under the current tide of immigration enforcement.

Even though the stakes are seemingly higher than ever under the Trump administration, it wasn’t necessarily any easier for immigrants under the tenure of President Obama, who was coined the “deporter-in-chief” by UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group.

Ragbir, who came to the U.S. in 1991 under a visitor’s visa and received a green card in 1994, is the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City. The nonprofit organization provides non-U.S. citizens support and protection via its unique accompaniment program, which pairs immigrants with American citizens that attend legal proceedings with them.

The group’s consulting and outreach services and community events reach 700,000 immigrants and their family members, a hefty number for a small office based inside a church in Manhattan’s West Village.

“Because we’re an all-volunteer and pro se legal force, the number of people really goes beyond our capacity, but we can handle it by the way we manage the program,” says Ragbir, explaining that he personally trained many of the staff and volunteers on everything he knew.

“I had to download my brain completely. In case something happened to me, this place needed to be self-sufficient,” he says.

Religious leaders and elected officials often participate in the accompaniment program, standing in solidarity with immigrants when they go to naturalization interviews or check-ins with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.

“Imagine you have a pastor watching,” Ragbir says. “It changes the whole process. It’s more working within the system so they aren’t deporting the person.”

In March 2017, Ragbir participated in the accompaniment program himself. Since his 2001 conviction for wire fraud, he’s been fighting a deportation order and is mandated to meet with immigration officials annually. Sen. Gustavo Rivera, City Councilmembers Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and other religious leaders stood alongside Ragbir during his yearly check-in, where it was determined that he could stay in the country for another year.

“I have you guys, and you are all here for me. But imagine those who do not,” he said to a crowd of supporters before his meeting that day. “We need to protect them, we need to protect each other.”

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