One man was nearly deported without a hearing for a prior criminal conviction. A woman was devastated by a beloved family member being deported without notice.
These are but a couple of stories of those who have experienced the cruel injustice of the US immigration system being portrayed in an upcoming docudrama opening this weekend. They are the kinds of stories many other, similar immigrants can tell about the horrors of deportation — especially by those who should have never been deported at all.
“Detained,” which premieres Saturday, Feb. 19 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, is a compilation of true stories exploring the impact of mass deportations on families and how they fight to stay together in the face of the harsh US immigration system.
The play was commissioned by Judy Rabinovitz — special counsel for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project — and written by Haitian-American playwright France-Luce Benson.
Among the many featured stories are the tales of Ravi Ragbir and Dani Regis, who both still bear emotional scars from their experience.
Each hopes that their stories can bring more awareness of the treatment many immigrants receive.
Fighting to stay
Ragbir, now a permanent resident living in New York, came to the US from Trinidad and Tobago in 1991, initially as a student to attend the City University of New York in his mid-20s.
His immigration troubles stem from a 2001 fraud conviction when Ragbir worked for a mortgage lender. He received a 30-month sentence and, in 2006, he was detained because of that conviction and sent to immigration court.
His lawyer sought a dismissal, arguing the judge did not have the proper documentation. But the judge denied the motion, stating that “whatever document they had was enough,” and Ragbir was ordered to be deported.
“I never really got the chance to defend myself,” Ragbir said.
Ragbir appealed the decision while in a detention center. While inside, he said he was abused by both officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and prison guards. Knowing that they would not face any consequences, the guards would often insult and laugh at detainees, complaining about their lack of hygiene.
“I wanted to bang my head against the wall because of the pain I was feeling,” Ragbir said. “The physical pain [was] something I could see [versus] the emotional pain and mental anguish that I had.”
Ragbir was eventually returned to New York in 2008. But he did not feel “free.” He had to wear an ankle bracelet, was given a curfew, had to report to immigration officials three times a week, and was subject to unannounced visits by them every other week.
“How did I survive that? … I kind of don’t know what happened,” he said.
Ragbir channeled his energy into being an immigration rights activist. He volunteered with Families for Freedom, a network of immigrants facing and fighting deportation, and later would serve as chairperson of the organization’s board of directors.
He has trained other community organizers about immigration issues, met with members of Congress and testified before the New York City Council to discuss detention and deportation policy. It was through his work that he met his wife, Amy Gottlieb, a US citizen and fellow activist.
Ragbir became a full-time organizer for the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City in 2010, an interfaith network of congregations, organizations and individuals. He said that the coalition has kept over 6,500 people from being wrongfully deported.
Ragbir firmly believes the intent of the US immigration system is to make people give up.
“I know the immigration system is racist. I believe that no one should be deported back. It is not about reforming the immigration system, it’s repealing it,” he said.
Ragbir was active throughout the Obama administration, championing immigration rights, but things took a turn for the worst when Donald Trump became president. On Jan. 11, 2018, ICE agents arrested him — he described it as being shackled — after surveilling his home and office. The reason: the 2001 fraud conviction.
He was so surprised by the arrest that he lost consciousness.
He remembered waking up in the hospital, surrounded by over six ICE agents, and seeing men in full body armor equipped with automatic rifles. He was detained for three weeks until a federal judge ordered his immediate release.
“We need to understand that we should not treat anyone like the way we have treated people who truly wish to come here,” Ragbir said.
Fighting to be together
Emmanuel Charles Pinette began working in Haiti at 16, after his father had abandoned the family. He became a pharmaceutical salesman, providing Regis with money to pay for her high school tuition.
When Pinette migrated to the US, he attended and graduated from a trade business school in New York. But he could not get work. He instead drove a cab to support his wife and four kids (three of whom were born in the US) before going to school in Kentucky and becoming a minister.
In the 1990s, Pinette and his family relocated to Florida due to its lower cost of living, and became a permanent resident towards the end of the decade.
But Pinette has also struggled with mental illness. In the early 90s, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while in New York. He would also receive treatment at a clinic in Florida for bipolar disorder.
His mental illness caused his wife to eventually leave him.
“My brother was sick, he didn’t have a place to live and … I told him to come to my house with his family,” said his sister Regis, a retired nurse who came to this country with her mother, six siblings and nephew. She has two children, and became a naturalized citizen in the early 1990s. She currently resides in Florida.
“We made it work because we didn’t want to see him in the pits. But as his condition deteriorated, he started to take off,” Regis said
Around 2003, when Regis lived in Long Island, she took Pinette to the Stony Brook University Hospital in New York for abdominal pain and hopefully get treatment for his mental condition. He was prescribed Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic medication. While the medication was working, Regis felt the prescribed dosage was not enough.
Hospital social workers arranged for Pinette to enter a program in Huntington where he could receive counseling. He was provided transportation to and from the facility, and attended the program for several weeks until one day, when he failed to take the bus home. He was later arrested in Maryland for trespassing.
Pinette developed a fixation on Harold Camping — a Christian radio broadcaster and evangelist in California, notorious for numerous failed apocalyptic predictions. Pinette loved his program, sending Camping money and viewing him as a father figure; he even began calling himself Charles Camping. Pinette decided to fly out and meet Camping, but things turned out badly.
Camping put up Pinette in a hotel, but Pinette did not check out in time. Police were called; Pinette was arrested and taken to the San Diego Correctional Facility. He had had previous run-ins with law enforcement for nonviolent offenses. But unlike at other facilities where authorities took his mental illness into consideration, the guards at this facility treated Pinette as they did the rest of the prison population.
“My brother was so sick in the detention center that he was constantly in the infirmary,” Regis said. “They mistreated him so badly that … he said just take him back to Haiti. It wasn’t because he wanted to go to Haiti. He just wanted the suffering to stop.”
Pinette would be transferred to Basile Detention Center in Louisiana and, from there, deported him to Haiti in 2011. The family says they were not notified, and only learned what happened because a family friend, who worked at the airport, saw his name on the deportation list and told them.
“I was livid. I felt like my world had crumbled,” Regis said.
Regis arranged to move Pinette back into their original home in Haiti, where he began to improve. She and her family have been working to get Pinette back to the US when a friend of his in Canada sent Pinette a letter inviting him to visit over there. Unfortunately, Pinette suffered a stroke in November 2020 and was completely paralyzed by a bad fall.
Regis was devastated.
“It was, to me, almost worse than telling me my brother died because … sometimes rather than suffer we would rather welcome death,” she said.
The family is helping Pinette reapply to re-enter the country. Their 92-year-old mother is sponsoring him to come. But Regis fears what could happen should their mother pass away.
Regis still feels strongly that her brother should never have been deported in the first place.
“I’m hoping [the docudrama] will help families who might be in the situation now,” Regis said, “… [that] it would maybe open the eyes of the government to what’s going on, that this is actually affecting real human beings and perhaps bring out some immigration changes.”
Performances run through April 10 at the Fountain Theatre, located at 5060 Fountain Avenue. Tickets range from $25-$45 depending on the seats. Booster vaccination is required for admission. For reservations and information, call (323) 663-1525 or visit the Fountain Theatre website at firstname.lastname@example.org.