Some New Yorkers prefer to keep their work and personal lives separate, but Ravi Ragbir’s entire life depends on his work. An immigrant from Trinidad, Ragbir, 53, is facing deportation. Ragbir lost his green card following a fraud conviction in 2000. After he served his sentence, the government ordered his removal and detained him in 2006. In 2008, a newly freed Ragbir committed himself to immigration activism. Now, as executive director of the nonprofit New Sanctuary Coalition, Ragbir works to educate immigrants on their legal rights and help them feel welcome in a tense political era.
Founded in 2007, the coalition works to defend the legal rights of immigrants. It offers weekly clinics where immigrants are matched with volunteers who can guide them on dealing with the legal system. The coalition also pairs immigrants with citizens who accompany them to immigration courts and check-ins with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN INVOLVED WITH IMMIGRATION ACTIVISM?
I really got involved when I was detained. … I became, what they would call, a jailhouse lawyer, to fight not for myself, but also for others. Then when I got released in 2008, I submerged myself in the movement [and] became an activist.
WHY DO YOU DO YOUR JOB?
I have no choice, because I myself am facing deportation. I can’t walk away and say, “Okay, I’m tired, I’m burnt out.” That option doesn’t exist for me. But apart from that, my staff is an extremely powerful team that understands our vision and works very diligently and very creatively to make this a safe space, safe organization.
COULD YOU SPEAK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE LEGAL CLINICS AND THE ACCOMPANIMENT PROGRAM THAT THE NEW SANCTUARY COALITION ORGANIZES?
The clinic is where we partner non-citizens who are in removal proceedings with others who can help them, if they need help reviewing or understanding what has happened to them. It’s an education process for those who are in removal proceedings, but also for those who don’t have attorneys. It is also a way for them to get help filling out the paper work that they will need to submit to the immigration court.
[In the accompaniment program], we partner U.S. citizens with non-citizens who are going to Immigration, whether it is for the court or to meet an immigration officer. … Those accompaniments mean a lot because they not alone, and even if something does go wrong, they know that word will get back to their loved ones through the organization. … They won’t be lost and disappear through this process.
THAT MUST BE A VERY FRIGHTENING EXPERIENCE.
Correct, because you don’t know what is happening. … Look at my story. … Not knowing where they were taking me, and what that process was, it’s very traumatic. So can you imagine, people who have never faced this, who don’t have family and lawyers to call and fight for you, it makes a huge difference.
PART OF YOUR WORK HAS TO DO WITH ORGANIZING MOVEMENTS AND PROTESTS. HOW DOES ONE ACTUALLY ORGANIZE A MOVEMENT?
What you have to do is you have to connect people with the same type of mindset. When you have connected two people with the same mindset, then you are able to call them together for a particular event or a particular action.
The immigrants facing removal are terrified of Immigration. … For the citizens who don’t have that problem, how do you organize them? Well, you organize them with the fact that there is a system that is destroying people’s lives.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF YOUR JOB?
The lack of resources. … The legal clinic right now is the largest clinic in the country. … We need more volunteers, we need more resources, and that is where everyone is frustrated.
The other challenging part of my job is teaching people that they are not lost, that they don’t have to give up, that they have ways to fight. They can fight, and they should fight.
Header photo: Ravi Ragbir speaking at a protest against ICE in Foley Square on Aug. 14, 2018. (The Ink/Amanda Blanco)