Dozens of activists gathered for a morning Passover seder today in front of 26 Federal Plaza, New York’s Immigration Center, to stand in solidarity with immigrants facing deportation.
The interfaith seder was organized by New Sanctuary NYC, and director Ravi Ragbir. Ragbir has struggled with his own problems with documentation and threats of deportation for more than a decade. A fixture of immigration rights activism in New York, the Trinidadian was convicted of wire fraud in 2001 and was placed on a high-priority deportation list in 2006. After a five-year jail sentence, he spent an additional two years in immigration detention. He has attended frequent check-ins at 26 Federal Plaza since his struggles with deportation began. Each time he goes in he does not know if he will be detained and deported back to Trinidad, making each visit a tense and precarious experience. His next check-in was scheduled for today, but he was granted a stay until January 2018.
Today also is the first day of Passover, a week-long holiday to commemorate the story of the Exodus, in which the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt. “We are called to remember and feel in our hearts that we were once slaves, that we were once oppressed, that we were once not free,” said Rabbi Joshua Stanton, explaining that the holiday is intended as a time of reflection on struggles under oppression.
“We are here to connect the values of the faith community to the struggles for immigrant rights, and to stand in solidarity with everyone who is facing deportation,” said Ragbir’s lawyer Alina Das. Das is also a law professor at NYU and co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic.
Other immigrants spoke at the ceremony. Myrna Lazcano, a woman who had been deported to Mexico and separated from her family for nearly three years, spoke to the crowd about her experience. Antonia House, one of the organizers, translated for her from Spanish into English. Myrna was reunited last year with her two daughters, Michel, 9 and Heidy, 14, who are both American citizens but were too young to petition for their mother’s return. “The impact of the separation continues, it leaves pain, it has an impact on the children’s studies and it causes trauma,” she said.
“With persecution and separation of families, it is not possible to have a country that can be enjoyed,” she continued.Others came to show support for Ragbir, whose struggle with deportation is familiar to their own. Judith Paez is Mexican and has been living in New York for 23 years. She is undocumented, and says that Ragbir’s stay until 2018 is cause for celebration. “He is such a wonderful person, we are happy to have more time with him.”
“I represent thousands and thousands of people who are going through this process,” said Ragbir. He says that the numbers of individuals that regularly undergo check-ins could be as high as 900,000. He does not believe the number is that high, but says that even if the true figures are just half of what is reported, “That’s still 400,000 individuals, and not just individuals but families. Because each one of those 400,000 people are part of families that also have to go through this.”
According to Das, check-ins are not a “mechanism that applies to only one category or type of immigrant. It’s a supervision mechanism for law enforcement.” They often apply to immigrants that the government knows are living in the United States illegally, although they have been allowed to stay as long as they provided regular check-ins with ICE officials. Now many fear that with the Trump administration, they could be more swiftly deported as ICE officers have been ordered to be more aggressive. This is particularly difficult for families that may have one or more undocumented member, where their deportation would separate families, as was the case with Ms. Lazcano.
Data about the number of check-ins–or deportations that arise from them–are not available. However, there have been reports that after years of “uneventful check-ins,” some people have been suddenly arrested and deported. This happened, for example, to an Arizona woman in February. New York City meanwhile has declared itself a sanctuary city, although the limits of such a declaration remain to be seen.
Attendee Daniel Baer said that he came to support his neighbors and friends, and he feels that the holiday has significance beyond the Jewish community. “I’m Jewish, I have always celebrated Passover, it has always been the story of the liberation of my people. It’s also the story of the liberation of all people.”
Amid songs of prayer, attendees were encouraged to gather in groups of ten to share their backgrounds and family stories.
“This year, the Passover story feels different,” said Rabbi Stanton to the crowd gathered outside of New York’s Immigration Center, and his words echoed in a people’s mic. “Because we know too well that so many are not free. So our obligation today, right here, right now, is to tell our story and be a voice for the voiceless.”