Patch News

AUSTIN, TX — Four women living in sanctuary — including one living in an Austin church to avoid being deported — filed a lawsuit Tuesday against U.S. immigration officials for targeting them with retaliatory and excessive civil fines.

The women were joined in the lawsuit by Austin Sanctuary Network and Free Migration Project. Each plaintiff is a leader in the modern sanctuary movement begun in the 1980s as a resistance to government oppression, officials noted in an advisory. Houses of worship across the country — .including St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, 14311 Wells Port Dr., where Guatemalan refugee Hilda Ramirez has taken shelter — have offered sanctuary in solidarity with migrants who otherwise would be deported.

Patch conducted an October 2019 interview with Ramirez in Spanish two years ago, where she spoke from behind the walls of St. Andrew’s in describing her time in sanctuary. Unable to extricate her from the church, Ramirez told Patch, ICE had issued punitive fines against her exceeding $300,000 in retaliation.

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“I thought it was a prank,” she told Patch at the time. “I never imagined it would be like this. They know I’m not working, and fighting for my son’s life.” She told Patch of fleeing the violence of her native Guatemala for the sake of her son, painting the subsequent ICE fines as akin to psychological torture adding to the stress and anxiety of forced sanctuary.

“It was not about a better life for me, but was about the life of my son,” she said in describing the motive behind her migration to the U.S. The scourge of gangs in Central America has been well documented, as have their tactics of recruiting boys into their ranks while meting out severe punishment up to death for those refusing membership that her then 13-year-old son faced.

Austin Sanctuary Network Chair Peggy Morton explained the sanctuary movement: “As people of faith called to love our neighbors, we’ve embraced immigrants who were fleeing violence, much of it caused by failed U.S. military and economic systems,” she said in a Tuesday prepared statement. “Consequently, we’ve witnessed abject cruelty from U.S. government officials surveilling houses of worship, retaliating against our friends with huge fines and growing unnecessary trauma among loving and courageous human beings who are not a threat to U.S. security.”

The migrant women now suing immigration officials are bringing claims against ICE and various officials under the First and Eighth Amendments and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The leaders allege that the government’s discriminatory and retaliatory issuance of these exorbitant civil fines infringes upon their rights of free speech, association, and religion, as well as their right to be free from excessive fines.

The lawsuit also accused U.S. immigration officials of violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — particularly given the premise of sanctuary being an act of faith — according to the advisory. According to sanctuary officials, each of the plaintiffs have spoken out about their decision to take sanctuary as an exercise of their religious faith, and work closely with the churches that have offered them sanctuary to expose the injustices of federal immigration policies.

In the summer of 2019, ICE targeted high-profile activists in sanctuary — all of whom fled persecution in their countries of origin — with notices stating its intent to seek up to $500,000 in fines from each of them. These notices were abruptly withdrawn, sanctuary officials noted, only to be re-issued several months later in 2020 against several individuals. Today, each woman faces the possibility of fines of approximately $60,000.

Records recently obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation have confirmed that these fines are part of a years-long effort by high-level Trump Administration officials and ICE to target sanctuary leaders, officials noted. They added their suit argues that these records prove, along with other evidence, that ICE issued these excessive fines to sanctuary movement leaders to stop them from speaking out and participating in the sanctuary movement.

“Fining us for telling the truth is an unfair way to shut us up,” said Vicky Chavez, a plaintiff in the new lawsuit and a targeted sanctuary movement leader residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. “I decided to take sanctuary to protect the lives of my daughters, and arriving at my church without knowing anyone was God’s purpose so that I could continue fighting for justice in my case,”

Ramirez noted the hefty fines had the added effect of deterring the women from working to support themselves financially: “ICE knows that I am living in a church, that I don’t have my own income or a way to make my own money,” she said in a prepared statement after the lawsuit was filed. “I am forced to rely on the church to meet my family’s basic needs, since I don’t have permission to work. I am also being followed by ICE, and they know that I would never have an amount of money that HUGE. I am scared and anxious, and I feel like I am being extorted.”

Sanctuary officials added the ICE targeting has negatively impacted the leaders’ emotional, mental, and physical health, as well as that of their families. Edith Espinal, plaintiff and movement leader in sanctuary in Columbus, Ohio, noted: “When I first learned that the Trump administration was trying to levy a fine against me, I immediately felt a chill down my spine and tears began flowing down my cheek. I was scared and angry because I saw it as an attempt by the government to punish me for trying to protect my family. I have lived constantly worried and in fear of what else the government may do against me or my children. But I have sought refuge in my faith and the love and support of my community.”

Free Migration Project and Austin Sanctuary Network, two organizations working in conjunction with sanctuary movement leaders to support the fight for immigrant rights, have had to divert significant resources from other projects to respond to ICE’s actions, officials said.

David Bennion, Executive Director of the Free Migration Project added: “It has been our honor to support sanctuary leaders as they continue to stand up for their families and communities despite ICE’s egregious attempts to silence them. We believe that the practice of sanctuary is a sacred defense of basic human rights and an affirmation of the inherent worth of all people regardless of where they were born.”

Among other forms of relief, the plaintiffs are suing for a permanent injunction restraining ICE from selectively enforcing its civil fines policy, damages, and a formal apology for the harm that ICE’s targeting has caused, the plaintiffs said.

“I am asking that ICE publicly recognize and correct their mistakes,” said María Chavalán Sut, plaintiff and movement leader in sanctuary in Charlottesville, Virginia. “It’s important to remember that this retaliation is falling disproportionately on women, many of whom are indigenous, who have already survived unimaginable violence and persecution. These are sacred lands, and when European colonizers came here 500 years ago, these lands had no borders or exclusion of human beings. ICE should not only rescind the fines but also pay us reparations.”

Rafaela Uribe, Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, added: “The sanctuary leaders and families at the helm of this case have lived in uncertainty and fear for too long. These women have been unlawfully targeted by the Trump administration for organizing together to demand change in our broken immigration system. We hope this case brings them relief and brings attention to the changes needed to our unjust immigration policies that use xenophobic rhetoric to punish immigrant communities.”

Elena Hodges of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic said the fines were nothing short of retaliation: “ICE’s civil fines were designed to stop sanctuary leaders from speaking out and are transparently punitive,” she said in a prepared statement . Her colleague at the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, Katie Matejcak, agreed: “Their targeting of sanctuary leaders is just the most recent chapter of U.S. immigration agencies’ long history of retaliation against the sanctuary movement,” she said.

Dinesh McCoy, a legal fellow at Just Futures Law, said sanctuary proponent are undeterred in spite of the heavy fines from ICE: “Despite ICE’s efforts to silence the sanctuary leaders, the leaders have continued to make their voices heard. The sanctuary leaders’ efforts have helped inspire many faith communities and others to become part of the movement for immigrant rights. ICE cannot stop the sanctuary movement, and the sanctuary leaders are taking this action as another step toward accountability and justice.”

To learn more about the case and read today’s filing, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.

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