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Expelling Dissent

Deportation doesn’t just ruin lives. It’s a longstanding tool of political repression in the US.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arresting people during a raid. February 2, 2010. ICE / Wikimedia

In mid-January, Ravi Ragbir, leader of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, arrived at his check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). An immigrant from Trinidad, Ragbir’s meetings with ICE had long been routine, free of the specter of deportation.

But this time was different. ICE agents informed the prominent activist that he was set to be expelled from the country. Overcome with shock, Ragbir fainted; he was taken away in an ambulance, his wrists bound in handcuffs. While officials claim Ragbir’s detention was due to a conviction for wire fraud nearly two decades ago, his supporters insist it was his activism that made him a target.

“Ravi threatens no one,” Amy Gottlieb, Ragbir’s wife and a fellow immigration advocate, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. “On the contrary, he and other immigrant leaders have led their communities with dignity and courage in a brutal time. That’s why they were snatched — and why ICE wants to deport them.”

Ragbir’s case is just one of several recent incidents in which visible community leaders have faced retribution from ICE. Jean Montrevil, another leader with the New Sanctuary Movement, who had lived in the US for roughly thirty years and has four American-born children, was suddenly deported to Haiti earlier this month. Eliseo Jurado, whose wife is a leader with the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, was detained recently. And Maru Mora-Villalpando, a Washington-based activist, was summoned by ICE for an unexpected meeting, leading supporters to fear she will be the next to be detained.

This string of deportations and detentions, while appalling, are anything but unprecedented. For well over a century, the US government has used its deportation powers to suppress opposition, intimidate movements, and silence critics. Frequently, it has acted in especially targeted ways, cracking down on individual leaders to send a message to any foreign-born activists who might consider speaking out. Now, with the ongoing roundup of activists like Ragbir, US immigration agents seem once again to be wielding their badges as instruments of political repression.

Politically Motivated Deportation

Throughout the twentieth century, the US government repeatedly expanded its powers to deport dissidents and radicals. The 1903 Immigration Act designated anarchists a deportable class; the 1917 and 1918 Immigration Acts expanded the categories of removal to political radicals; and the 1940 Smith Act gave the government the right to deport individuals for belonging to certain organizations, even if they’d since left the disfavored group. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act amended but fundamentally maintained these anti-radical provisions.

Perhaps the most prominent instance of politically motivated deportations occurred during the first Red Scare, when — in the aftermath of World War I — the US government launched a fierce campaign to identify and remove “radical” foreigners. Among its most notorious victims were famed anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who departed on the “Red Ark” carrying nearly 250 deportees to the Soviet Union in the final days of 1919. But the list of targeted activists is far lengthier, including cases as diverse as the deportation of Chinese anti-imperialist activists in the 1920s, the multi-decade crusade against Australian labor leader Harry Bridges in the middle of the century, and the deportation of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh last year.

Foreign-born activists have been especially vulnerable to this form of repression because they enjoy few constitutional rights or protections from government persecution. Technically, deportation is not considered a punishment under US law. The 1893 Supreme Court decision Fong Yue Ting v. US established the federal government’s “absolute” right to expel people, under the logic that deportation is an administrative, rather than a criminal proceeding. Thus, while citizen dissenters have often had their civil rights flagrantly violated, immigrant protesters have had even fewer opportunities for redress. Berkman and Goldman addressed this legal loophole at the time of their departure:

What means the administrative process? … It is the practice of picking men up on the street, on the merest suspicion of “political untrustworthiness” … tearing them away from their families, locking them up in jails or detention pens, holding them incommunicado for weeks or months, depriving them of a hearing in open court, denying them trial by jury, and finally deporting them to unknown shores.

To those familiar with the machinations of the modern deportation state, Berkman and Goldman’s description sounds chillingly familiar. Montrevil was apprehended suddenly and whisked away to Haiti in a matter of days; Ragbir was initially transferred to Miami, leaving his family scrambling to find out where he’d been detained.

There are additional parallels. Even at the height of the “red scares” of the early and mid-twentieth century, the number of immigrants deported under the “anarchist,” “communist,” or “subversive” provisions of immigration law was never large. Immigration authorities would usually find another, nonpolitical pretext to deport political opponents. Ragbir’s deportability based on mail fraud, and Montrevil’s deportation due to a past drug charge, show the enduring malleability of immigration law as a tool of government repression.

Ragbir’s detention brings to mind the most famous immigrant expelled using that offense: Marcus Garvey, whose conviction for mail fraud led to his 1927 deportation to Jamaica. Garvey, the controversial but widely popular leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was surveilled for years before the government managed to imprison and remove him. As early as 1919, J. Edgar Hoover admitted he was searching for a deportable offense to muzzle Garvey. “He has … been particularly active among the radical elements in New York City in agitating the Negro movement,” Hoover complained. “Unfortunately however, he has not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation.”

Foreign-born activists have found themselves with a target on their backs not only for expressing “radical” views but for working in movements that bring the oppressed together and challenge the prevailing racial or gendered order. When Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian-born activist, was kicked out of the country in 1955, she didn’t mince words about the impetus. “I was deported from the USA,” Jones said, “because as a Negro woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in their side in my opposition to Jim Crow racist discrimination … in my work for redress of these grievances, for unity of Negro and white workers, for women’s rights…”

Refugio Martinez — a labor activist who worked with the United Packinghouse Workers of America, the Unemployed Councils, and the Mexican Civic Committee in Chicago — met a similar fate. Immigration authorities began harassing Martinez in 1938, before eventually deporting him in 1953. Like Jones, his defense committee was unequivocal about the reason. Martinez’s deportation, they charged, was intended to “intimidate Mexican American and foreign-born workers from being active union members.”

An American Tradition

Yesterday afternoon, fresh out of immigration detention, Ragbir went back to the place where he had been detained. A federal judge had ordered his release just days earlier, calling immigration authorities’ actions “unnecessarily cruel” and a violation of Ragbir’s due-process rights.

“There is a psychological warfare out there and they want us to be weak,” Ragbir told a crowd of protesters outside a federal building in Lower Manhattan. “They want us to cave … so our spirits are broken.”

Ragbir’s words echoed those of Sandra Lopez, a Colorado sanctuary leader, who explained after Eliseo Jurado’s detention: “They want to frighten us and divide us. But no … we need to leave behind the fear and the shadows and continue raising our voices.”

Ragbir’s release is an undeniable victory for immigration activists, who quickly flocked to his defense and raised the profile of his case — so much so that Rep. Nydia Velazquez invited Ragbir and his wife to attend Tuesday’s State of the Union as honored guests.

But Ragbir hasn’t escaped the talons of the immigration-enforcement state just yet — he’s still facing deportation as early as next week.

In this respect, his is a quintessentially American tale. “The history of American repression,” scholar Ellen Schrecker reminds us, “is strewn with the bodies of the foreign-born.”