NEW YORK — A federal judge, calling an imprisoned immigration rights activists’ treatment “unnecessarily cruel,” ordered his immediate release Monday and said people subject to deportation deserve “the freedom to say goodbye.”

Applause erupted in a packed Manhattan courtroom after U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest announced prominent activist Ravi Ragbir must be freed. She also refused a government request to halt her order for a possible appeal.

“It ought not to be — and it has never before been — that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home, and work. And sent away.

“We are not that country; and woe be the day that we become that country under a fiction that laws allow it,” Forrest said. “The Constitution commands better.”

Forrest also seemed to seek to extend the effect of her ruling, saying it was “certainly cruel” to effectively imprison Ragbir and “many such men and women like him” who have conducted themselves lawfully for years.

Ragbir, a Brooklyn resident and executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, a coalition of 150 faith-based groups, was so shocked that he briefly lost consciousness when he checked in to immigration authorities Jan. 11 and was notified he was being detained. On Monday, he was at the Orange County Correctional Facility in Goshen, New York.

Ragbir’s wife, immigration attorney Amy Gottlieb, said outside court she was moved “by the judge’s powerful language about what it means to live in a democracy.”

“It’s been a really hard couple of weeks, and I’ve been really disheartened and disillusioned. This restores my faith a little bit in our system,” Gottlieb said. Gottlieb had written in a court document that her husband’s detention was so abrupt that she could not pay bills without his passwords.

“It sometimes feels like a loved one passed away and I am the executor of his estate,” she wrote.

U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, a New York Democrat, said she hopes Ragbir will go to Washington for Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Gottlieb had already accepted Velazquez’s invitation.

The citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, a legal U.S. resident since 1994, fought deportation after his Sept. 12, 2001, conspiracy and wire fraud conviction for accepting fraudulent loan applications while working at a now-defunct loan company. Placed into removal proceedings, he was detained nearly two years before his 2008 release. The U.S. Supreme Court refused legal relief in October 2011. Subsequent court efforts failed.

His lawyer, Alina Das, said in court papers that Scott Mechkowski, deputy field office director at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office where Ragbir was detained, told her Jan. 8 that he felt “resentment” about Ragbir’s last scheduled check-in on March 9.

She said Mechkowski told her he had heard statements Ragbir made to the press and that he continues to see him at prayer vigils outside his Manhattan office. She said he also expressed anger that elected officials accompanied Ragbir to his check-ins, and he asked why lawyers bother to include so many letters from the community in efforts to keep Ragbir in the country.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Waterman labeled the claims “pure speculation” and said the government had seen no evidence to support them.

Immigrants and their advocates recently have claimed federal authorities are targeting immigration activists for detention and deportation.

After oral arguments, Forrest read aloud her written ruling, saying she “notes with grave concern” the argument that Ragbir was targeted because of his speech and advocacy for immigrants’ rights and social justice.

She also said Ragbir and those like him nationwide should be allowed “the freedom to hug one’s spouse and children, the freedom to organize the myriad of human affairs that collect over time.”

“There is, and ought to be in this great country, the freedom to say goodbye,” the judge said, noting he had lived the life of a redeemed man for the last decade.

She said the process was “unnecessarily cruel” to Ragbir and added: “Those who are not subjected to such measures must be shocked by it, and find it unusual.”

“That is, that a man we have allowed to live among us for years, to build a family and participate in the life of the community, was detained, handcuffed, forcibly placed on an airplane, and today finds himself in a prison cell,” Forrest said.

She said the government “acted wrongly” with no showing or belief that he would not have left on his own if told to do so.


This story has been corrected to show Ragbir was convicted in 2001, not Jan. 11.