BOB GARFIELD: In New York City, the most high profile of these I.C.E. detention cases is Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group, New Sanctuary Coalition. He captured the imagination of the immigrant community and the press last month after being detained during a routine I.C.E. check-in. To avoid being sent packing without warning or recourse, Ragbir employed activist tactics and arrived with backup.
ERROL LOUIS: When he and others had to go check in with Immigration and Custom Enforcement, I.C.E., he would bring a couple of hundred followers with him.
BOB GARFIELD: Errol Louis, the host of Inside City Hall, a politics show on cable station NY1.
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ERROL LOUIS: Sort of be a witness there and maybe kind of make the government think twice before seizing him or anybody else and deporting them and implementing a removal order. The government has, indeed, taken that step, however. And it led to chaos in the streets. He had hundreds of supporters there.
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But I.C.E. has been trying to deport him. A judge has temporarily stayed it but the order remains in effect.
BOB GARFIELD: As a poster child, it turns out, in your reporting, he’s not necessarily the greatest example of injustice. Why is that?
ERROL LOUIS: This was not someone whose only offense was immigration itself plus a minor violation. He was part of an identity theft and mortgage fraud ring for a short time in the late 1990s. He signed the confession saying that he worked with somebody to create fake loans in the name of unsuspecting real people and to then take 1% of the loan proceeds. And a lot of people went to jail for that particular scheme. He happened to be one of them.
BOB GARFIELD: And a lot of people were victimized because their identities were stolen for this mortgage fraud racket.
ERROL LOUIS: That’s what I wrote just recently in my column, and it, and it sort of put me at odds with a lot of what the media voices and certainly the activists had been saying here in New York City, which is that identity theft is not victimless. If you just discover someday that somebody has taken out a $400,000 loan in your name and the company wants its money back, your Social Security number or your credit rating, your prospects for employment can all negatively be affected by that, and it takes quite a while to straighten it out. So my main point was to try to make clear to people, this is not a DUI. This was serious harm.
And then, you know, of course, there's an open question over whether or not he's fully paid his debt to society by going to prison. In this case, yeah, most likely he has. There was probably some restitution that had to be paid. I don't know if he actually paid it or not. And then there's the question of those unsuspecting victims of identity fraud. And that's usually where the immigration activists get really quiet because they don't ask and, in my opinion, they don’t really care.
BOB GARFIELD: The government certainly has a tactic of wanting to get rid of people and then kind of trolling for past offenses so that they will have a pretext to send them back where they came from. And there comes this problem of battling truths. There could be the truth of the government's bad faith battling the truth of this guy’s really unsavory past. How are we supposed to process that?
ERROL LOUIS: I think the main thing to do is to process it, to not simply skate over it and retreat into one's ideological preference corner and then just battle from there and disregarding everything that doesn't help your argument. I mean, that seemed to be a lot of what's going on. You do a little bit of research, you can find, you know, Ravi Ragbir suing the Obama administration and, in turn, being pressured right back by that same Obama administration. To the extent that this is political, you've got to add that context, that it's not simply partisan, you know, unless you just want to bash Trump and, and, and defend an immigrant hero, which is kind of the shortcut, which a lot of folks in the media seem to be taking.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, look, so it behooves activist groups, movements or even those trying to find plaintiffs for a Supreme Court case to come up with someone who is a great poster child for the cause. That's the whole point. And if they maybe leave out some of the detail to focus on the most dramatic aspects of the story, well, that's a judgment they have to make. You can’t find the right martyr just everywhere.
ERROL LOUIS: The movement has what I would call a “Claudette Colvin problem.” Nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested for not moving to the black section or giving up her seat on segregated public accommodations, Claudette Colvin refused to do so. And, in fact, it was her name that was one of the plaintiffs on the suit that actually did desegregate the buses in Montgomery in the 1950s, but she wasn't the ideal person. She was removed violently. She [LAUGHS] didn’t just submit to arrest. She fought with the police who tried to remove her. It turned out that she was a pregnant teenager, she was dealing with some married man, and it was all very messy. And so, they kind of shuffled her to the back and pushed Rosa Parks to the front.
The movement has a problem of that sort with Ravi Ragbir, but it's their problem. It’s not our problem. It is not the media’s problem to try and find the right person for them to put forward. In fact, they should put forward whoever they do, knowing that we are going to subject that person to searching scrutiny. You know, we’re not going to take at face value the story that they put in front of us, no matter how appealing it may be.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder if this whole thing is sort of an exercise in unreality because, yeah, you may be a good representative of the grievance we have, but do you have to play the cello too?
ERROL LOUIS: [LAUGHS] It’s a permanent problem. It’s a permanent problem for activists, it’s a permanent problem, frankly, for editors and producers and journalists. How do you connect with an audience? Well, audiences, aside from a few strange people -- I happen to be one of them -- are not necessarily going to be moved by charts and graphs and statistics and explanation of policy and of systems. But that’s not how most people operate. The way most people operate is, yes, you have to show them an appealing person, you have to make them fall in love with this person or at least understand and connect with them on some level. And that is how most stories are told. I mean, that’s how political parties find the ideal candidate for a particular race.
BOB GARFIELD: Gotcha, but does that empathy, in the public's mind, transfer to some, you know, poor schmo who’s being deported who doesn't play the cello, who hasn't cured cancer, who isn’t a riveting speaker? Is there a risk in putting all the attention on somebody who isn’t really in any way representative of the class of people you're trying to protect?
ERROL LOUIS: Well, of course. I mean, look, when the DREAM Act has been debated here in New York at the state level and federally, the activists always do what I guess I would do too if I were in their position. You know, they find some incredible honor student who's about to cure cancer, you know, volunteering down at the hospital when they’re not getting all A's in high school and all of this kind of stuff. That's lovely but somewhere in the back of your mind, and I don't think it's just me as a longtime journalist, I think for most people, there’s got to be a little bit of a nagging sense that, you know what, that's not everybody. This is somebody extraordinary. Maybe we just need an exception for this person and then everybody else can get abused or mistreated or deported or subjected to all kinds of other things. I mean, I think it creates a certain amount of confusion when you get into this.
Now, political parties, social and political movements, they are in the mythmaking business. We in journalism are very much not in the mythmaking business, with a couple of minor exceptions. We’re just not supposed to be involved in that stuff. I want to think that our audiences are sophisticated enough and mature enough that they’ll actually accept somebody, warts and all, and you just tell the story the right way. You say, look, so-and-so is not perfect, so-and-so doesn't always call his mother on Sunday, you know, [LAUGHS] so-and-so is getting failing grades and, you know, kind of isn’t that much fun to be around and doesn’t really get into extracurricular activities ‘cause they’re busy smoking pot on the weekends, okay? But they have a story to tell. And there are a lot of people like them, and let’s be grown-ups and try and handle this. I personally would love to see that story more often because it would set the mood for an adult decision, a messy, sticky decision about imperfect people. If we can get people in the habit of doing that, we’ll have done a great service, I think, to American democracy.
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BOB GARFIELD: Errol, thank you very much.
ERROL LOUIS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Errol Louis is the host of Inside City Hall, a politics show on the NY1 news channel. He’s also a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His recent column in The Daily News is “Financial Crimes Convict Ravi Ragbir an Ill-Chosen Immigrant Icon.”
Coming up, can relatively small lies serve a larger truth?
HANNAH BEECH: Any refugee camp is a place where false narratives flourish. People figure out that if you have a more dramatic tale, you might end up with more aid. And I know that if it were my own family and I needed a rice ration, I’d probably do the same thing.