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American religious leaders seek preliminary injunction to stop deportation of immigrants


Group argues government action violates first amendment rights

By Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Churches like First Presbyterian Church in Metuchen, New Jersey, continue to voice opposition to the arrests of immigrant Christians for possible deportation. Photo by Justin Karmann

LOUISVILLE – A group of American religious leaders consisting of priests, rabbis, imams and other clergy, have joined forces to seek a preliminary injunction to stop the deportation of immigrants currently residing in the U.S. The so-called Amici, which include the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and eight Presbyterian pastors, argue that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is trying to silence freedom of speech by targeting immigrants who speak out publicly against U.S. policy on the issue.

Amici, the Latin plural of amicus, means “friends.” These individuals join together to voluntarily advise the court on an issue of interest by filing an amicus curiae (literally, friend of the court) brief.

Amici filed court papers last Tuesday saying “Amici are exceptionally wary of government officials using their discretion to prosecute, punish and chill political speech. Amici condemn the efforts of ICE to silence critics of the government’s policy by seeking to detain and deport activists who have been targeted because of their political advocacy on behalf of immigrant rights.”

The request for a preliminary injunction is being filed relating to the government’s efforts to detain and deport Ravidath Ragbir, a native of Trinidad, who came to the U.S. 25 years ago with his immigrant parents. Ragbir has risen to become a nationally recognized immigrant-rights leader, serving as executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City.

In recent weeks, Ragbir says he has been detained by ICE and was nearly deported before a legal team was able to secure a court order staying his removal, pending resolution of a court motion. Ragbir, who is married to a U.S. citizen wife and has a daughter, has petitioned for adjustment of status (green card), based on his marriage and family.

The denomination’s Advisory Committee on Litigation met on February 28th to review the brief. Noting the Presbyterian Church’s 125-year history of policy in support of immigrants, recent assembly policy in support of immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for those who are undocumented, and our history during the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s when the church opposed government retaliation against our members, the committee advised the Stated Clerk to participate in the brief.

 “As a church we come together to worship and to bring about the Kingdom, when God will dwell among us and every tear will be wiped away,” says Nelson about his participation in the brief. “Kingdom building requires us to speak to people in power, revealing falsehoods and oppression. Our siblings in Christ and in our communities are speaking to power, revealing the injustice of their impending deportations. We live in a nation that should not just tolerate this speech but hear it and make reforms. Instead, our nation is punishing their speech. By signing this brief, we are defending the speech of those made vulnerable and adding our voice to their chorus.”

Ragbir has been a vocal critic in both the local and national media of President Donald Trump’s policy on immigrants. Through the coalition, he has organized vigils and protests against immigration laws and enforcement actions. Amici believe that is why Ragbir has been targeted for deportation.

Amici express concern that efforts to provide sanctuary for immigrants will result in retaliation by ICE by raiding houses of worship, arresting and deporting congregants. “Without court intervention, Amici’s core mission of spiritual guidance, charity and support for immigrants will become a red flag that leads to heightened enforcement efforts against Amici’s congregants.”

This concern is well-founded for Presbyterians, who remember federal prosecutions of Sanctuary workers. “In the 1980s the government punished our religious expression when it prosecuted our members involved in the Sanctuary movement and we defended our expression of our faith in the courts then,” says Teresa Waggener, Immigration Attorney for the Office of Immigration Issues. “The difference between then and now is that the members prosecuted in the 1980s were citizens and were punished in criminal court where everyone gets a lawyer and the level of proof to convict is high. Now, the government is punishing the expression of people who are more vulnerable because they are of varying immigration statuses and can be called into immigration court where proceedings often happen without a lawyer, the burden of proof is lower, and their punishment is a lifetime of separation from family and community.”

In their motion, Amici also argue that ICE’s efforts jeopardize their work to protect immigrants. “The actions taken by ICE strike at the heart of the work undertaken to provide support and sanctuary to immigrants. These actions are contrary to any notions of fair play and equal treatment, and are meant only to intimidate and silence political opposition,” the document reads.

Amanda Craft, manager of Advocacy of the Office of Immigration Issues, expresses concern for the many Presbyterians fighting for their immigration status and those organizing around them. “Congregations are finding themselves in the midst of the immigration debate, sometimes when beloved members find themselves the focus of immigration enforcement. In the United States and in our denomination, we value our right to advocate, especially when groups stand up for themselves, seeking a just solution. What we are seeing today is retaliation against those advocating for justice. ICE is directly targeting sanctuary leaders who are voices of the affected communities clamoring for change. As a people of faith, we are called to hear God’s voice in the midst of others. We cannot stand by while the voices of our neighbors are silenced so we stand and add our shouts as together we seek justice.”

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