Last Thursday, as Donald Trump's racist comment about immigrants from "shithole countries" was saturating headlines across the globe, Ravi Ragbir sat with his wife, Amy Gottlieb, in ICE's downtown Manhattan office and was told he was about to be deported.
Ragbir has been living in the U.S. for nearly 3 decades — a Trinidadian émigré who arrived here on a visitor's visa in 1991 and became a lawful permanent resident 3 years later. Ragbir has devoted his life to building a more just American immigration system, serving as the Executive Director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, which supports the families and communities resisting detention. But after a fraud conviction and a period of incarceration in the early 2000's, he's lived with the agonising spectre of exile from the place he's called home for more than 20 years.
Due to his conviction, Ragbir was unable to readjust his status to permanent resident, despite his marriage to an American citizen. And on January 11th, his long fight took a devastating turn. After learning that he would face immediate deportation at ICE's Manhattan office, Ragbir blacked out and was taken to a hospital, where he was separated from his wife by immigration agents. The two weren't able to communicate until early the next morning, when he called her from a detention centre in Miami. Gottlieb traveled to Florida over the weekend, though she was only able to speak with her husband from behind a plexiglass barrier. And while the courts have ordered a temporary stay of Ragbir's deportation, the government is challenging that decision, with a hearing scheduled for later today.
"This immigration system is vicious — the way we treat families, the people who are integral parts of their communities," comments Gottlieb, herself an immigration lawyer. "They're just whisked away. Someone can be detained even when they are being fully compliant. I don't have words to describe what this is going to do to me and Ravi in the future. I feel like I've been the victim of a crime."
Ragbir's story feels painfully emblematic of the way the Trump administration's bigoted immigration rhetoric carves people into divisive categories — embracing applicants from predominantly white nations like Norway while demonising those from Haiti, Mexico, or Africa. Of course, beyond their blatant racism, Trump's policies also perpetuate a brutal approach to immigrants who have committed criminal acts, overlooking the complex possibilities for growth and forgiveness embedded in Ragbir's narrative. But under the guidance of a president who has attacked empathy-driven immigration initiatives, from DACA to sanctuary cities, the system seems unlikely to embrace such nuances anytime soon.
Still, the couple isn't ready to surrender to despair. Bolstered by tireless friends and fellow organisers, Gottlieb is staying hopeful by continuing Ragbir's tenacious advocacy, despite the toll these traumatic circumstances have taken on their lives.
"It's hard to go through your day and try to appreciate the love that we have while still knowing that there's this threat of violence all the time," she says. "It's a deep depression to wake up in the morning and to know this is what we're fighting. We're tired, but we're not giving up. We're not going to let them beat us down."
"Everyone has made mistakes. Do I have to pay for the rest of my life? I need to be forgiven," Ragbir argues, emphasizing the cruelty of an immigration system that judges us by the worst thing we've done. "We say that we're a nation that believes in forgiveness," Gottlieb adds. "Why should that one crime define who Ravi is?"
Watch the video above to learn more about Ragbir and Gottlieb's struggle to remain together in the United States.