Ravi Ragbir came to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago in 1991. Last month, he had his first immigration check-in under the Trump administration. These appointments have been a fact of his life for nearly a decade, but this time he was ordered to return to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in New York City 34 days later with proof that he had applied for travel documents with Trinidad and Tobago’s consulate. Ragbir took it as an ominous sign.
Ragbir and his wife, Amy Gottlieb, are one of many families across the country in a state of limbo, arranging their lives between check-ins, unsure if their loved one will walk out again.
This is their last 34 days.
“I need to take a break.” Amy Gottlieb’s voice is quiet, partly because we are in a church and partly because she is tired and doesn’t want to be interviewed. People around her are eating, but the paper plate she’s holding is collecting grease from an untouched slice of pizza. “Can you email me next week?” she asks. “Maybe we can talk then.”
It is an unseasonably mild afternoon in early March, and Gottlieb spent it waiting to find out if her husband, Ravi Ragbir, would be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It was not a private moment, and it wasn’t supposed to be. Ragbir and his defense team had organized a support rally to take place just before his check-in at the ICE field office in Lower Manhattan. It’s a decision they’ve both made, to live this experience in public.
Religious leaders and members of the New York City Council gathered on the steps of Foley Square that morning to praise Ragbir as an essential part of his community—he is the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition and a long-term presence in the local immigrant rights movement—while the crowd of more than 100 people chanted “Ravi, Ravi, ra, ra, ra” in a clumsy rhythm.
When Ragbir emerged again a little more than 40 minutes later, he announced that he had been told to return the following month with proof that he started the process of preparing his travel documents with Trinidad and Tobago’s consulate. The reasons why were unclear, but the development felt ominous. “I have to go through this again. I have this knife, this guillotine over my neck,” he says. This is among the many strange things about the immigration system—you always need papers, even if it’s for removal.
Afterwards, a smaller group walks with the couple back to a nearby church. After a brief prayer, people eat pizza and ask what might happen next. No one has a real answer, but there is paperwork to be filed and calls to be made. It was a small victory to walk out of that morning appointment, a member of his defense team explains. But another clock has started: 34 days.
At the church, Gottlieb excuses herself to take a seat. “I’m going to eat this now,” she says, raising the limp plate as a wave goodbye.
Gottlieb is late because of Time Warner. There are 19 days until Ragbir’s next appointment with ICE, but right now the internet at their apartment is down. It may feel like the more mundane parts of your life should stop in moments of crisis, but they don’t.
“I was on the phone with them the whole way here,” Gottlieb says as she comes through the door at Judson Memorial Church, a protestant congregation in an imposing old building in Greenwich Village. It wasn’t exactly an argument, but they had gone back and forth about when it would get fixed. “It was honestly a little cathartic.”
It’s another warm evening in a string of warm evenings, and 30 or so people are at a meeting of the New Sanctuary Coalition, making small talk and eating the lentil soup someone made. Gottlieb says a quiet hello to her husband, who is there because the meeting is in his office but also because he is an agenda item for the group gathered in conversation around him.
Sitting with Ragbir and Gottlieb that night, it’s clear that his immigration story is circuitous in the way a lot of immigration stories can be. Legal statuses, like people, often change over time. Ragbir first arrived in the U.S. with a visitor’s visa, then applied for and received a green card in 1994. He had a daughter (who is a citizen) and got a job. He started a life.
The turning point was 2001, when a wire fraud conviction related to the mortgage firm where he worked as a loan processor upended his legal status. (Ragbir is currently working to have this conviction vacated.) After spending two years on house arrest while appealing his conviction and serving a 30-month sentence, he was ordered deported and held in immigrant detention for another two years. He was released in 2008 through an arrangement that closely resembled strict parole—he had to wear an ankle bracelet and check in with immigration officials multiple times a week.
It was also around this time that he became immersed in the sanctuary movement and met and fell in love with Gottlieb, who is the associate regional director for the Northeast Region of the American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights Program and has deep roots in the same kind of activism.
Under the Obama administration, Ragbir’s low-level offense and work in his community made him a low priority for deportation. But his first check-in since Trump’s election was scheduled for almost a month to the day after Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a 36-year-old mother of two in Arizona who also checked in with ICE on a routine basis, had been deported after reporting to a pre-scheduled case review.
Whatever sense of safety or routine Ragbir and Gottlieb had developed in the last several years became threadbare after Trump’s election. It all but vanished with Rayos’ deportation.
In conversation, Ragbir is at turns quiet and gregarious. He cheerfully deflects personal questions with jokes or an unrelated story—how he hates documentaries or a how he’s leading a know-your-rights-training in Connecticut next week—and tells me he is happy to let Gottlieb do most of the talking when it comes to questions about his case or how this all feels.
“If I allow myself to feel, the feeling that is going to be evident is terror and stress and all of those things that debilitate you,” he says that night. “So you live in it or you move past that, and moving past that is where I choose to be instead.”
Gottlieb is more candid about the stress. Her life right now is a series of events and people to be coordinated. She hasn’t read a full book in months, she says, and has taken to doing crosswords to shut off the part of her brain that otherwise runs on a loop about Ragbir’s case.
“I check my email constantly, waiting to hear from the lawyers, from city council members,” she says. “We’re going to have a community event, what should the community event look like? Who should we meet? Where should we meet?”
The following week, Ragbir and Gottlieb are at yet another church, this time in Brooklyn Heights. Around 60 people have turned out for a meeting of Ragbir’s defense committee, an eight-member team of lawyers, advocates, and religious leaders who are involved in every detail of the case.
There are tables set up with about every kind of food you might expect in a Brooklyn neighborhood that is both posh and crunchy—babaganoush, an electric pink birthday cake, an untouched plate of sushi—and Rhiya Trivedi, a student representative on the committee who is just finishing her law degree, is giving an update to the room.
The conversation turns to organizing for the day of Ragbir’s check-in, and they ask the journalists to step outside.
Planning of this scale feels rare, and Ragbir and Gottlieb are better positioned than most families in their situation. They have a dedicated legal team and individual expertise on the system developed through decades of combined activism. As active members of their church and community, they have hundreds of supporters advocating on their behalf. They speak English and have reliable jobs. They are lucky, but there is no escaping the stress of not having control over your own life.
Later on that night, the couple moves around the room, a strange kind of celebrity at these events organized around them. They provide updates on the support letters they’ve gathered for Ragbir’s file, thank friends for turning out, coo over children, insist people take home some of the leftover food. They are surrounded by friends and strangers who want to help, and they respond with graciousness. Gottlieb is warm. Ragbir makes jokes, offering his own reassurances. These are relationships founded on decades of community, but it is hard to be a symbol and a person all at once.
“People are very afraid, and you can see it in their faces,” Gottlieb says while clearing the table. They need something from her in those moments. “They want to know I am going to be OK.”
“Change of plans,” Trivedi, the law student on Ragbir’s defense team, explains over the phone.
An email follows:
We are grateful to announce that Ravi no longer has to check-in on Tuesday, April 11th. He complied with ICE’s request to submit proof of his application for travel documents, and ICE has moved his check in date to January 2018, prior to the expiration of his current stay of removal.
But the event being organized for that day—a Seder outside the federal office building where Ragbir was meant to check in—is still on. The weekend is spent making more plans.
It is 8:15 a.m. and dozens of people are gathered in front of the ICE field office office, which serves as a kind of towering bookend to a long month. Around the corner, at another entrance, close to 60 people are lined up for their scheduled appointments with immigration. They push strollers and entertain impatient children. They are young and old and caught in the same holding pattern.
Ragbir and Gottlieb are in the crowd, chatting and thanking people. There are some cautious congratulations exchanged over Ragbir’s reprieve, though everyone seems to agree that isn’t really the right word. It is warm again and people are wearing sandals and short-sleeves.
Someone begins to tell the story of Passover, but it’s hard to hear her over the trucks rumbling past on Broadway. A voice calls out from the back of the crowd to suggest a human microphone. The story of exodus and emancipation becomes a call-and-repeat.
“It took the crying out for God to be activated,” she says in a near shout.
It took the crying out for God to be activated, the crowd echoes back.
An hour passes like this, then the group begins to move toward an open space at a nearby school. Gottlieb says on the walk over that she doesn’t want to talk to media. She is polite but firm about it: “I am taking the day off.”
In the nondescript common room of the New York Law School, Ragbir rises to thank everyone present. “I feel very strong knowing that you all will be here with me,” he says. The seder continues. A rabbi asks for people to call out their hopes.
“No more walls!”
“End of detention!”
It is a little after 10 a.m. and people are clearing out. They sweep matzoh crumbs off the table and pack up to leave. Ragbir chats warmly with the people around him, then heads downstairs in a small procession of friends, lawyers, and straggling reporters. The day is over. Gottlieb says she plans to turn off her email for the day, but there is more work to do between now and January. More planning for different outcomes. A new clock starts.
This story was updated to clarify that Ragbir spent two years on house arrest while appealing his conviction, followed by a 30-month sentence.