When Convictions Follow Immigrants for Life
They served their sentences and have rejoined society.
But are convicted immigrants not good enough to stay?
As rain and sleet fell on New York City during the early evening hours of the winter’s first Nor’Easter on the second day of March, immigrant rights leader Ravi Ragbir sat in a small room near the entrance of Holyrood Church on West 179th Street. He had been in immigration detention only a few weeks prior, but now he spoke to a tiny group of seven, mostly older, community members who braved the weather for a monthly community meeting with Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who invited Ragbir to speak.
Ragbir spoke broadly about activist movements and moved hurriedly from topic to topic. After referencing Black Lives Matter, Muslim rights and attacks against women, he summed up his talk by saying, “You have a bunch of old, racist, white supremacist men who are trying to control our lives.”
The pace and broad scope of his talk was perhaps a result of his now limited time in the country: he was fighting a deportation order issued earlier in January, and despite an ongoing lawsuit against the government and a stay of removal, had nearly exhausted his legal options.
Behind him, the children of Amanda Morales, a woman who has taken refuge in the church since August while fighting her own deportation, ran around the pews, laughing and playing a game of freeze tag.
It was a quiet meeting, especially when compared to the chaos that had kicked off in the streets in front of Varick Street detention center months earlier. At the beginning of the year, Ragbir and another activist with the New Sanctuary Coalition, a faith-based immigrant rights nonprofit that Ragbir co-directs, were detained by ICE and put in deportation proceedings connected to prior criminal convictions. Jean Montrevil was deported to Haiti in January. Ragbir was detained at an ICE check-in on January 11, in what turned into a showdown between NYPD and immigrant activists who were choked, shoved and arrested by the officers.
The incidents led to both an upswell of community support and eventual blowback. A rally at Judson Memorial Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day after Ragbir’s arrest drew over a thousand people, many of whom knew Ragbir personally through his activist work, who crammed into the large church and cheered in support of Ravi.
But political figures and pundits also used this as an opportunity to question the criminal pasts of both activists. In Ravi’s past was a 2001 conviction for wire fraud after passing along fraudulent loan applications. (Ragbir disputes his awareness of the scam, despite his guilty plea). NY1’s Errol Louis suggested in the NY Daily News and On The Media that the immigrant rights movement should select leaders with less complicated histories. Several City Council members agreed with him during a February 15 vote to support the motion to ask Congress to grant Ragbir relief.
“The reality is that Ravi Ragbir is not a dreamer, he is a criminal who defrauded innocent hardworking New Yorkers,” said Council Member Mark Gjonaj from The Bronx.
The criticisms illustrate a long-standing conversation within the immigrant rights movement that has come into focus in recent months: a splintering created by policies that carve out immigrants with criminal convictions from benefits or prioritize them for deportation. These policies result in life-long precariousness for those with a wide range of convictions for which they’ve already served their sentence. They are based on the premise that even when a person has been deemed safe to return to society by a criminal court, federal immigration judges can expunge them from the country, ostensibly for safety reasons.
“The good immigrant-bad immigrant is what causes us to be in this situation in the first place.”
Politicians are quick to defend DACA recipients – who have not been convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors – as worthy of citizenship, and some have made efforts to open pathways for educated and economically mobile immigrants. At the same time, those with more difficult pasts are treated harshly.
But public defenders and activists at the heart of the immigrant rights movement are pushing back on these distinctions and the cruel compromises they inspire, even as federal enforcement has taken a harsher tone.
“More and more people are engaging with the intersectionality between the justice movements,” Ragbir told me, “because the groups have more power when presenting a united front.”
Ragbir said that he has intentionally never hid his criminal record all during his career as an activist as an intentional challenge.
He says shaming those with criminal carve-outs is part of the problem. “The good immigrant-bad immigrant is what causes us to be in this situation in the first place.”
Janice and Ramesh
Ragbir is probably the most high-profile of those whose criminal conviction initiated ICE enforcement. Many others languish in detention, sometimes for years, with limited outside support. To worsen matters, a February Supreme Court ruling determined that periodic bond hearings for many of these detainees are now no longer required, extending incarceration for many and potentially triggering “voluntary removals,” or self-deportation.
“A lot of our friends are in detention for a year, two years, they’re almost forgotten,” said Janice Hoseine, who works with Ragbir at New Sanctuary Coalition. “It seems there’s no end in sight.”
She has experienced first-hand the damage ICE can inflict on families; her husband Ramesh Palaniandi was in deportation proceedings for years, stemming from a 2007 attempted robbery. Ramesh, who met Janice as a teenager in Ozone Park, entered the U.S. from Guyana with a green card in 1992. He served a six-month jail sentence for his crime and was released in 2008.
But on March 2, 2015, weeks after the couple bought a home in Jackson Heights, they were visited by ICE officers, who arrested Ramesh.
The couple went through two immigration lawyers who they say didn’t want to challenge the charges against Ramesh and even suggested the couple begin planning a new life in Guyana, where Ramesh was to be deported. Ramesh’s sentence was for over 365 days of prison time, triggering an aggravated felony charge in immigration court, a category mandating deportation under the punitive 1996 immigration reforms.
The couple had to reopen the 2007 criminal case and get Ramesh’s sentence reduced, something their first lawyer found intimidating. “’I don’t think the judge will go for that,’” Janice recalls her lawyer saying sheepishly.
She says that throughout fighting Ramesh’s case, she was confronted by people who defined him by his criminal conviction, unwilling to see that he had turned his life around. In the seven years since his release from prison, Ramesh found financial stability doing sewage and plumbing work and kept himself clean of any criminal infraction. At one point, he had even worked at 26 Federal Plaza, the federal facility where many with immigration cases are required to check in with ICE.
At bond hearings for incarcerated immigrants – which in New York City only take place at Varick Street detention facility – the burden of proof to establish that he or she is not a flight risk or a danger to the community is on the defendant.
“For seven years I walked the streets, and then I was put in a detention center. How can I be a danger to the community? And how can I be a flight risk? I don’t want to leave. This is my home.”
In front of a judge, and a few scattered friends and family if they are fortunate, the defendants’ entire criminal history is presented, including arrests that resulted in no convictions. Defendants are led into the courtroom handcuffed and in federally-provided orange jumpsuits, sometimes transported in from as far as Bergen County in New Jersey or Orange County, New York, where jails double as immigration detention centers.
These hearings play out as a harrowing moral evaluation of a defendant’s life in the U.S., with their freedom on the line. The longer they’re detained, the worse are their chances; extended periods of detention often result in self-deportations from emotionally exhausted detainees, something I’ve witnessed repeatedly while sitting in on hearings at Varick Street’s detention center.
Every encounter with the criminal justice system is brought up by lawyers from the Department of Homeland Security, no matter how small. Family connections, access to different kinds of immigration relief like temporary protected status, and whether the defendant has a shot at citizenship are also weighed in the judge’s decision. But depending on the defendant’s conviction, the deck may be stacked against them.
If the detainee doesn’t have family or friends who are able to take off work to sit on hearing, it leads the judge to believe the detainee has no or low community support and is therefore a flight risk.
“That’s what’s being pinned on everyone: a danger to a community, a flight risk,” Janice, who gained her citizenship while fighting Ramesh’s charges, told me. In one of his hearings at Varick Street, she recalled that Ramesh asked the judge if he could speak on his own behalf.
“For seven years I walked the streets, and then I was put in a detention center. How can I be a danger to the community?,” Janice quoted Ramesh asking the Judge.
“And how can I be a flight risk?,” he continued, “I don’t want to leave. This is my home.”
In addition to the stress, the loss of Ramesh’s income put a strain on Janice and Ramesh’s finances. “The process put us through hell, we almost lost our home,” Janice says of this period.
Many take for granted that those with criminal convictions have always been targeted for deportation. But criminality became linked to immigration status as a result of policy decisions with troubling origins.
The 1924 Johnson Reed Act introduced an origins quota, letting in 2 percent of each nationality represented by the 1890 census. To decide who could be let in the country under these tighter restrictions, some immigrants were deemed LPC – “likely to be a public charge” – a sweeping catch-all category in which federal officials crammed a variety of criminal convictions and social taboos.
Immigration scholar Mae M. Ngai writes in her legal history “Impossible Subjects”: “These categories were constructed out of modern ideas about social desirability, in particular with regard to crime and sexual morality, and values that esteemed family preservation.”
When the 1965 immigration act abolished national origin quotas, it led to an influx of immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries. But criminal restrictions remained.
The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) is widely considered to have designed the deportation system into the one we have today, linking criminal convictions to mandatory deportation. The law notably expanded the number of crimes for which immigrants could be immediately deported. Even legal permanent resident status could be revoked for these convictions under the new laws.
It created an entire category of crime called “aggravated felony” – a federal category that swept up crimes that cities and states may not have considered felonies – and pronounced them grounds for immediate deportation. It didn’t matter how long ago the crime was committed or what the person had done in the years since. If they committed one of these crimes, they were deportable.
It’s this category that Ragbir’s wire fraud conviction falls under, as well as Ramesh’s 2007 attempted burglary.
“What IIRIRA did was create this pipeline from criminal contact to deportation,” Carmen Maria Rey, director of the Immigrant Intervention Project at Sanctuary For Families told me. “It led to issues like mandatory detention – all the issues that we’re grappling with now.”
The jail-to-deportation pipeline has been welcomed by nativists, but it also presented moral distinctions for liberal reformers to prove their own purported toughness on crime. They could then try to use this reputation to court reform for the “good immigrants” that were their constituents. That this criminal class had already served their respective sentences and were deemed fit for society by judges and juries was unimportant.
“These types of stories remind me that being a good model minority, following all the rules, being all of the stereotypes that they tell us to be will never save us.”
President Obama declared, for instance, that he wanted to deport “felons, not families.” And in New York, progressive Mayor De Blasio and the City Council created a list of 170 crimes for which the NYPD would cooperate with ICE . This same list of crimes was later used by the mayor to exclude immigrants from public legal aid.
The list of 170 crimes is broad; it ranges from detonating a weapon of mass destruction to igniting a firecracker indoors. It lists down robbery in the second and third degree, which could include operating as a look-out while a theft happens. But even if the list were not broad, its existence suggests a set of conditions in which due process need not be followed.
Anoop Prasad, a lawyer with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, told me there was a tendency from politicians and advocates to side with those with lower-level offenses such as quality-of-life crimes and minor traffic violations, while leaving those with serious convictions who have already served their time out to dry.
“I think it’s a misunderstanding of who is in the deportation system,” Prasad told me. “It’s not just broken tail-lights. A lot of immigrants are in over-policed, low-income neighborhoods. The criminal system and immigration system is so intertwined.”
This push to expand the conversation on immigrant’s rights beyond the scope of what’s politically appropriate is epitomized by the debate over DACA recipients. As Democrats are asked to bargain the lives of “Dreamers” against absurd ethno-nationalist demands – like the removal of the family reunification system that has existed for over 50 years – many activists are pushing not just for a “Clean Dream Act” that makes no such compromises, but are thinking about how to fight for those who don’t qualify for DACA at all because of criminal convictions.
At a rally on March 5th in Flushing, Queens, in support of a clean Dream Act, Asian American immigrant groups came out in hundreds to speak on the issue in the neighborhood’s crowded Main Street.
Stephanie Park, a community organizer with the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, was one of the speakers. A DACA recipient, Park illustrated the futility of good immigrant narratives with the story of Yung Wing, the first Chinese student to graduate from Yale in 1876. Wing became a naturalized citizen, only to have his citizenship revoked when he tried to re-enter the country in 1898. This was made possible by the Naturalization Act of 1870, which allowed naturalized citizens from China to be stripped of their status.
“These types of stories remind me that being a good model minority, following all the rules, being all of the stereotypes that they tell us to be will never save us,” Park told the crowd.
“We’ve been trying to steer away from the identity of Dreamers,” Park told me later, saying it propels a myth that some immigrants deserve citizenship and others deserve deportation. Even if a clean Dream Act were passed, Park says, it still leaves over 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. unaccounted for.
Park believes that criminal carve-outs impact immigrant communities on a personal level.
“When we look at the term criminal, what are we actually talking about?” she asks. “Most often that includes people in our own family.”
Park says that her mother, who is undocumented, once told her that she understood why some would want to keep criminals out of the country. But Park’s mother has arrests for minor infractions in her own history, something her daughter recollected for her.
“I had to remind her that she and her son, my brother, both have arrest records,” she said. “For small reasons but an arrest record at the end of the day is still an arrest record.”
“Southeast Asian American communities are three to four times more likely to be deported for old convictions, compared to other immigrant communities.”
Anshu Khadka, an organizer with Desis Rising Up and Moving, also spoke at the rally against divisive immigration policies. She’s worked alongside New Sanctuary Coalition and Ravi in the past, she says, and the group lent support when one of their members, Hardat Sampat, was detained by ICE in 2017. Sampat had a then-recent burglary conviction, and ICE took him from his Richmond Hill neighborhood in a tense encounter that was recorded and made its way online.
Khadka says there is sometimes resistance in the South Asian communities that DRUM works with to support those with criminal convictions, which she attributes to divisive policies. Sampat’s burglary conviction is one of the 170 crimes for which the city has agreed to cooperate with ICE. He was detained for five months and eventually released after petitioning from his wife and sister.
“Our communities have been targeted by creating the good and bad immigrant narrative, and a lot of our community folks sometimes do tend to believe that,” Khadka says.
But the source of this distrust in Asian communities is not entirely the product of legislation. Taboos on criminality are universal, but immigrant families, under existential pressure to establish their own legitimacy in the U.S., are quick to imagine criminality as a dividing line between themselves and other minority groups. It’s a view distorted by anti-blackness and disconnected from the realities of the racialized hierarchies that animate American society.
But Asian Americans, too, are made more vulnerable by policies like IIRIRA, although these vulnerabilities vary greatly by country of origin. According to a report released in 2015 by a collaborative of Asian American justice groups, for instance, more than 12,000 Southeast Asian immigrants have been given final orders of deportation in the last 20 years as a result of old criminal convictions.
“Southeast Asian American communities are three to four times more likely to be deported for old convictions, compared to other immigrant communities,” according to the study.
These issues also reverberate in the Indo-Caribbean community in Southeast Queens, although many community-members were not initially supportive of Hardat’s case, according to Will Depoo, an organizer at DRUM. Negative rumors began spreading online after his ICE arrest from community members who didn’t know him personally, Depoo says. But support increased after some outreach from DRUM.
Lack of legal status and brushes with the law are both topics not often discussed in the Indo-Caribbean community, leading to feelings of isolation, Depoo says.
“There are many people in our community who have gone through similar situations and don’t have legal status,” he says. “They internalize and keep it to themselves.”
Khadka says the goal is to broaden the conversation among South Asians so that everyone sees their fates as linked.
“I do think it sometimes seems like we’re only focusing on one group of folks, young immigrants, Dreamers.” But she adds, “we cannot make that compromise, we all stand on this together and we have to fight together.”
Ramesh Palaniandi’s case was closed on February 9, when the Department of Homeland Security terminated his deportation proceedings. He had received a pardon for his 2007 conviction from Governor Cuomo on December 27 of last year, freeing him from the aggravated felon charge.
“It gave me relief. It was this dark cloud that just shifted. Especially when you hear multiple voices and echoes about it’s not going to be good,” Janice says. She wants to now devote more of her energy to fight the larger fight alongside New Sanctuary.
Ragbir’s stay had been extended to at least May 11. The stay will likely be extended beyond then because it’s tied to a federal first-amendment lawsuit against the government, charging that Ravi and others were targeted for their leadership.
Since Ravi was taken into custody and detained at Bergen County detention center – the same place where Ramesh was detained -– Janice has been fielding calls to New Sanctuary from detainees, so many that they had to set up a separate intake. News of Ragbir’s support had spread to others detained, and many were inspired.
“I just want to say thank you guys for all the work you’re doing,” Janice recalls one phone-call from an immigration detention. “It gives us great hope because we see he’s here, but there are so many people fighting for him.”
Jean Montrevil, a Haitian-born activist also associated with New Sanctuary, did not receive such an extension. He was deported in January after living in the U.S. for over three decades, having entered the U.S. legally with a greencard at 17. His deportation was based on a conviction for possession of cocaine – a drug that two recent U.S. presidents have admitted to using – for which he served 11 years in prison.
Despite years as a community activist, Montrevil’s offense is on the list of crimes for which NYC cooperates with ICE, and was used as a justification for his deportation.
Programs across the country have emerged in the past year that provide free legal defense for deportees. But many programs – including ones in Los Angeles and Miami – have debated or applied criminal carve-outs for this type of aid, a sign that convictions are still seen as fair game for exclusions.
For now, Ragbir is still in the country fighting his case and wishes to widen the scope of conversations around immigrant rights.
At his talk at Holyrood Church, Ragbir thanked the handful of people who braved the relentless snow and ice outside, drawing a comparison to the difficult conversations ahead.
“Many more of us should be here braving the weather because we have to become discomforted,” he said to the tiny crowd. “We have to come out of our comfort zone. If we don’t do that, we are all going to lose.”