Ravi Ragbir, center, shown last August, won a reprieve from...

Ravi Ragbir, center, shown last August, won a reprieve from deportation on Thursday. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Immigration activist Ravi Ragbir won another reprieve Thursday from deportation based on a prior felony conviction as a federal appeals court in Manhattan reinstated his claim that he was wrongly targeted because of his outspoken leadership in the immigrant-rights movement.

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals  said Manhattan U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel was wrong to rule last year that a federal law barred intervention in execution of a removal order, and held that alleged targeting due to speech fit under an exception for “outrageous” government conduct.

“His advocacy for reform of immigration policies and practices is at the heart of current political debate among American citizens and other residents,” the court said. “…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.”

Ragbir, 54, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, was convicted of wire fraud in a mortgage scheme in New Jersey in 2001 and sentenced to 30 months in prison. He was permitted to stay in the United States despite an order of removal issued in 2006, and he became a high-profile immigration advocate.

When he was abruptly taken into custody in January 2018 to be deported, it triggered protests and claims he was targeted for being a leader in the opposition to Trump administration’s enforcement policies. A judge ordered his release to give him a chance to get his affairs in order.

Stays issued by Castel and then the Second Circuit kept Ragbir free until Thursday’s decision, but his future remains unclear. He still faces a legal removal order, and the court said its ruling doesn’t mean “he may never be removed.”

The Second Circuit panel said he should probably stay free for the “near future” until the “taint” of retaliation is gone — possibly next January, when he would come up for a regularly scheduled review — but left it to Castel to decide when deportation can proceed.

Government lawyers declined to comment on the decision, but Ragbir's attorney, Alina Das, lauded the judges for finding that courts can intervene to protect constitutional rights even after a removal order and that legal deportability doesn’t strip immigrants of a claim they are being singled out.

She said government surveillance of immigrant activist groups around the country could trigger similar claims by others. “We are obviously thrilled,” said Das.

In their 2-1 decision, appeals court Judges John Droney and Pierre Leval did not rule on the merits of Ragbir’s retaliation claim, but said it was “strong” – citing conversations in which New York Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials expressed resentment about being publicly called a “Nazi squad” after a 2017 confrontation with Ragbir.

“A plausible, clear inference is drawn that Ragbir’s public expression of his criticism, and its prominence, played a significant role in the recent attempts to remove him,” Droney wrote.

A dissenting judge, John Walker, said he thought the “taint” of Ragbir’s initial detention was dissipated when he was released to get his affairs in order in January 2018 and that the administration’s emphasis on deporting criminals was more central to the case than his activism.

“One would have to be blind not to notice that the change of administration in January 2017 has brought with it an unremitting focus on deporting convicted felons, such as Ragbir,” Walker wrote. “I see no reason for this case to continue in the district court, further impeding Ragbir’s removal.”

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