Let My People Stay

Posted |

by Maxine Phillips

On the first day of Passover, Ravi Ragbir was scheduled to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Manhattan for what might have been the start of his own exodus. Instead of being deported, though, Ragbir, a Trinidadian and director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, received notice that he didn’t need to check in again until January 2018. Jubilant supporters gathered near Federal Plaza with him, Ramesh Palaniandi, and religious leaders for an interfaith seder whose refrain was “Let my people stay!” A rabbi lifted up a piece of matzo and wrapped it in a pink cloth. The matzo would be the afikoman, traditionally a piece hidden at the beginning of the seder.  “Today, this represents those who have to hide themselves, even though they live among us.” Using white grape juice to stand in for the traditional wine, she raised the first of the four cups of the seder and called for liberation.

Religious imagery comes easily in the shadow of the tallest federal building in the United States, located in lower Manhattan. I’ve walked around it on Good Friday in support of immigrant rights and on occasion for the weekly “Jericho Walk” in which supporters call for the wall of hatred and mistrust to fall. Just a month before this seder, about 500 of us had gathered to support Ragbir as he went for a check-in. On that day, as he, his U.S. citizen wife, and supporters entered the building they encountered a weeping Janice Hoseine. Her husband, Ramesh Palaniandi, had just been seized and was on his way to a detention center.

Today, both Ragbir and Palaniandi are free, but not before hundreds of people mobilized for demonstrations, wrote letters of support, and worked whatever political levers they could. Everyone in the Passover crowd knew that the reprieves could be revoked and that Ragbir and Palaniandi were stand-ins for hundreds of thousands who did not have their visibility.

When the group marched to the New York Law School for the last two cups of the seder, Ragbir paid tribute to his legal team from the New York University Immigrant Rights Clinic.  The clinic, like others throughout the city and country, as well as countless immigration lawyers and many immigrant rights groups, has been overwhelmed by the need.

And the fear.

It is a fear known throughout centuries to all who have not been made welcome. A woman spoke of being separated from her children for three years after being deported. Another woman, whose grandmother had fled pogroms in Poland, held up the hidden matzo. The pink cloth it was wrapped in, she explained, had been used in her family for more than a hundred and fifty years. Its use today was another link in the chain of solidarity.

As if to underscore the solidarity, activist Bill Talen, known as Rev. Billy, and members of his “Stop Shopping Choir,” to which Ragbir belongs, led the group in a version of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” We sang, “Standing with the refugees, we shall not be moved,” and “Building bridges, not walls, we shall not be moved.”

“Justice does not know the boundaries of religion,” declared Rabbi Joshua Stanton, as he lifted another cup of grape juice and called on everyone to “dare to dream” of what justice would look like.

What’s next? I asked Ragbir as the crowd dispersed.  “We can’t keep living in fear,” he responded. “We have to change policies. It doesn’t seem possible right now, but we have to come together and keep trying.”

Maxine Phillips is co-convener of the Religion and Socialism Working Group of Democratic Socialists of America.