New York, NY — A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of immigrant-rights activist Ravi Ragbir, concluding that the First Amendment prohibits the government from targeting immigration activists for deportation based on their political speech. “To allow this retaliatory conduct to proceed would broadly chill protected speech, among not only activists subject to final orders of deportation but also those citizens and other residents who would fear retaliation against others,” the decision states. It goes on to explain:
Ragbir’s speech implicates the apex of protection under the First Amendment. His advocacy for reform of immigration policies and practices is at the heart of current political debate among American citizens and other residents. Thus, Ragbir’s speech on a matter of “public concern” is at “the heart of . . . First Amendment protection,” and “occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.’” Because Ragbir’s speech concerns “political change,” it is also “core political speech” and thus “trenches upon an area in which the importance of First Amendment protections is at its zenith.” Indeed, his “speech critical of the exercise of the State’s power lies at the very center of the First Amendment.” (citations omitted).
The court of appeals concluded: “Ragbir’s speech implicates the highest protection of the First Amendment,” and “he has adduced plausible — indeed, strong — evidence that officials responsible for the decision to deport him did so based on their disfavor of Ragbir’s speech (and its prominence.”
The decision further held that a federal statute stripping courts of their power to hear these First Amendment claims is itself unconstitutional. The court of appeals sent the case back to the district court to consider the case in light of its conclusions, directing the district court to stay Mr. Ragbir’s deportation as it considers the next steps in the case.
Mr. Ragbir, Executive Director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, was abruptly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) on January 11, 2018 after years of routine check-ins. ICE’s action came at the heels of its similarly abrupt arrest and detention of Jean Montrevil, a co-founder of New Sanctuary Coalition, that same month. ICE deported Mr. Montrevil and attempted to do the same to Mr. Ragbir before a federal court ordered his release. ICE officials made clear that they resented Mr. Ragbir’s and Mr. Montrevil’s outspoken activism and criticism of U.S. immigration policies.
Even after Mr. Ragbir’s release from detention in January 2018, ICE continued to pursue Mr. Ragbir’s deportation, prompting the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, CASA, Detention Watch Network, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the New York Immigration Coalition to join Mr. Ragbir in filing suit (Ragbir v. Homan) to challenge the targeting of immigrant rights activists by federal immigration officials. The suit alleged that the specific actions against Mr. Ragbir, along with similar retaliatory actions against activists across the country, were part of a pattern and practice of unlawful targeting in violation of the First Amendment.
The district court denied Mr. Ragbir’s motion for a preliminary injunction and dismissed the claims challenging his deportation under the First Amendment. On appeal, the Second Circuit vacated that decision, concluding that the alleged retaliatory deportation by ICE was sufficiently “outrageous” to violate the First Amendment, and that the Constitution requires judicial review of these claims. The opinion was written by Judge Droney and joined by Judge Leval. A dissent was filed by Judge Walker, who stated that he agreed with much of the majority’s reasoning, but believed ICE’s retaliation against Mr. Ragbir ended with his release from immigration detention.
“I cannot begin to express my gratitude to all those who have stood with us in this struggle. It humbles me to know that not only will my voice be protected, but that together we can protect the voices of so many people who are living in this country under the threat of deportation,” said Mr. Ragbir. “It was all of our voices together that made this decision possible and we have to continue to speak out against the travesty of our deportation system.”
“Today’s decision stands as a warning to this administration to end its pattern of retaliating against immigrant-rights activists across the country,” said R. Stanton Jones of Arnold & Porter, who argued the case at the Second Circuit. “Mr. Ragbir’s activism, his advocacy, and his protest for immigrant rights stand in America’s greatest civic traditions. With today’s decision, Mr. Ragbir may continue his important work free from fear of forceful government retaliation.”
“This decision affirms a constitutional principle of critical importance — the First Amendment prohibits our government from silencing its political opponents by deporting them,” said William Perdue of Arnold & Porter. “Immigration officials are not above the Constitution.”
The lawsuit was supported by numerous faith leaders, immigrant rights organizations, elected officials, activists, and others who spoke out on behalf of protecting immigrants’ First Amendment rights (including but not limited to the New York State Council of Churches, Make the Road New York, the Center for Popular Democracy and the Center for Popular Democracy Action, the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, and the Knight First Amendment Institute). “Protecting activist voices is about protecting the movement,” said Jessica Rofé of the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic. “So many have stood up for Ravi because they know what is at stake.”
“Ravi’s crucial advocacy drives to the heart of our nation’s moral imperative to remember that immigrants are humans who deserve to be followed, listened to and protected,” said Pastor Kaji Dousa, co-chair of New Sanctuary Coalition. “For asserting that immigrants have rights and are not disposable, ICE sought to silence Ravi and deport him. We are grateful that the Second Circuit had the wisdom to rule on the side of liberty and to uphold the notion that even Congress can’t take away immigrants’ Constitutional rights. Now Ravi can continue with the very work this country so deeply needs.”
“CASA applauds the Second Circuit’s decision allowing Ravi to move forward with his case. It is an important vindication of the First Amendment right of all members of our society to make their voices heard, free from fear of retaliation. Our leaders will not be silenced, as we continue to fight back against the abuses of the current administration’s inhumane immigration policies, and call on Congress to finally reform our broken immigration system so that families can remain together,” said George Escobar, CASA Chief of Programs and Services.
“Today’s ruling by the Second Circuit is a victory for the First Amendment and for all immigration activists around the state. The Court’s finding affirms what we always knew — Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unlawfully targeted New Sanctuary Coalition’s Ravi Ragbir for deportation as a result of his immigration rights activism,” said Betsy Plum, VP of Policy, New York Immigration Coalition.
“We know that the struggle is not over,” said Alina Das of the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic. “But we are on our way. We are so deeply grateful for this decision because it will allow us to continue our fight for justice for Ravi and for all those who have been targeted and taken from our community for speaking out.”