Sanctuary leaders are concerned that federal immigration agencies are working toward removing undocumented immigrants from sanctuary churches nationwide.
Ivan Ramirez, a 13-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker, says he can’t remember a time in his life when he felt free. Now that the federal government intends to fine his mother more than $300,000, he worries that whatever semblance of safety they have in sanctuary is being threatened.
Ivan and his mother Hilda Ramirez came to the United States fleeing familial violence in 2014. Since then, they have been “under attack” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the elder Ramirez said. They were detained together for almost a year after first arriving in the United States. Since their release from detention, they have been targeted for deportation. Because of ups and downs in their immigration cases, they have been forced to take sanctuary twice in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. On July 4, soon after receiving a letter from ICE informing her of a $303,620 fine, Ramirez told Rewire.News she sees these financial penalties as part of a larger pattern of attacks against immigrants in sanctuary.
“I think this is an attack from the government against us. It comes from the racism of the government, and the goal is that [ICE] wants to see us defeated,” Ramirez said. “They very well know we don’t have that amount of money. We don’t have money, we don’t have anything. Immigration wants to force us to be defeated.”
On July 2, NPR reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, sent some undocumented immigrants notices of its intent to fine them hundreds of thousands of dollars for “willfully” failing to depart the United States after receiving a final removal order. The Washington Post reported that ICE is issuing notices of two types of fines: Immigrants with outstanding deportation orders are being notified that they owe up to $799 a day, while immigrants who agreed to voluntarily leave the United States but then didn’t face a lesser fine (typically up to $4,792 total, though an immigration judge could increase the penalty). “The agency must notify immigrants about the civil penalty before imposing the fines and give them at least 30 days to dispute it,” according to the Post.
At least three of the immigrants who received fines are leaders in Colectivo Santuario, a nationwide collective of immigrants in sanctuary organizing for their freedom.
They include Ramirez and Edith Espinal-Moreno, who has been living in Ohio’s Columbus Mennonite Church since she was ordered to be removed from the United States in 2017. The Mexican asylum seeker took sanctuary to avoid deportation and being separated from her two U.S.-citizen children. Espinal-Moreno has been hit with one of the highest fines: $497,777.
“I felt mad when I saw [the letter],” Espinal-Moreno told Rewire.News. “Immigration is trying to scare people like me who are fighting to keep their families together.”
Another member of Colectivo, Rosa Ortez Cruz, was notified that ICE intends to fine her $314,007 for having “connived or conspired” to avoid deportation. The mother of four is confined to a church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, because she fears for her life if she is deported to Honduras.
Espinal-Moreno said the federal immigration agency is trying to use “every tool” to “quiet” immigrants in sanctuary, and these fines are simply the latest scare tactic. Ramirez called the fines “psychological violence.”
“They keep attacking people like us who are vulnerable,” Ramirez said. “I’m very sad because immigration is torturing me psychologically.”
“What they are doing to us is unjust, like what they did to Samuel,” Ramirez said, referencing Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who was also a leader in Colectivo Santuario. The father and husband from Mexico was confined to CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, for 11 months before leaving the church in November 2018 to attend what was supposed to be a routine biometrics appointment for deferred action at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office. Oliver-Bruno was tackled to the ground by ICE agents in front of his family and supporters. Once in custody, he was quickly moved through ICE’s detention system before being deported. In an interview with Rewire.News after his deportation, Oliver-Bruno said he believed it was a planned, coordinated attack—that USCIS and ICE had worked together to detain him. Rewire.News confirmed that USCIS and ICE communicated about the sanctuary leader’s case prior to detaining Oliver-Bruno.
Several months after Oliver-Bruno’s deportation, ICE instructed Hilda Ramirez to leave her sanctuary church and appear at a field office. Citing Oliver-Bruno’s deportation, Ramirez decided against attending the meeting, believing it would lead to detention and deportation. In the letter ICE sent to Ramirez informing her of the fine, the agency cited her refusal to attend the meeting as one of the reasons she was being fined.
Sanctuary leaders who spoke to Rewire.News expressed concerns that these fines are just the beginning, and that federal immigration agencies plan to remove undocumented immigrants from sanctuary churches.
“Everything feels bad and I worry it will be worse, but we have to keep fighting,” Espinal-Moreno said. “Immigration is looking for a way to get us out of sanctuary. I think that’s why they’re sending these letters. I don’t know what their next step will be. I don’t know if they will come inside the church, so in Columbus, we are ready for anything to happen. We are thinking about everything.”
Churches are considered sensitive locations under a 2011 ICE memo that says immigration enforcement should not be conducted in houses of worship, hospitals, and schools. The memo is not a law, or even a policy. It can technically be rescinded at any time, and already the memo allows for many exceptions that can be loosely interpreted by ICE. In 2016, for example, ICE lured an undocumented immigrant out of a church with text messages pretending to be a family member.
ICE did not respond to a request for comment from Rewire.News by the time of publication
While Ramirez and Espinal-Moreno agree the letters from ICE were intended to intimidate and scare immigrants in sanctuary, they said it’s had the opposite effect. They refuse to back down and are “more committed than ever” to fighting back.
Espinal-Moreno said she has seen recent efforts by members of Congress to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis at the border and the conditions in Border Patrol facilities. These actions make a difference, she said, and she’s calling on elected officials to use their power to help families in sanctuary.
“Lots of Democrats talk about immigration, but they really need to do something about it. They say they support immigrants and refugees, but they need to stop saying it and do something. Right now. We need it,” Espinal-Moreno said.
Ramirez and Espinal-Moreno aren’t afraid to fight for their families. Both women quietly left their sanctuary churches last summer to attend a gathering in Durham, North Carolina with their families and other sanctuary leaders. At the event, they learned organizing strategies and developed deportation defense campaigns. In September 2018, Ramirez left her church to participate in direct action at Rep. Will Hurd’s (R-TX) office, where she told his staff her personal story of migration and criminalization.
“I came to [the United States] to flee my country and protect my son. I’m in this church to protect my son. People say we are hiding in sanctuary, but we are not hiding. Immigration knows where we are,” Ramirez said. “Sometimes I feel scared, but I know I have to keep fighting. I have to keep fighting for my freedom and my son’s freedom. I’m fighting for justice, and I’m fighting for the rights of all immigrant people. Please be compassionate towards us. We just want our freedom and our rights to be respected.”