Earlier this month, Edith Espinal was sitting in her room at Columbus, Ohio’s Mennonite Church when the letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrived.

“Please be advised that your failure to depart the United States in compliance with your final order of removal may result in civil and criminal penalties, including monetary fines and imprisonment,” it read. The letter also instructed Espinal to appear at a December 17 appointment at her local ICE field office.

Espinal is in sanctuary, an increasingly common practice in which immigrants take shelter in a house of worship to avoid deportation. Though there is no law governing sanctuary, ICE has typically refrained from entering the grounds of sanctuary-providing churches to arrest those whom the congregations have given protection.

But that may be changing, as ICE employs new tactics, signaling the federal immigration agency is looking for workarounds to its own policy. 

In Espinal’s letter, ICE cited section 274D(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which outlines how undocumented immigrants may be subject to civil penalties in the amount of $799 per day if they do not depart the United States after receiving a final order of removal.

This was the second time the Mexico native and mother of three has received a notice from ICE threatening exorbitant fines; a first letter came to the church in July. While Espinal has not received confirmation of the final fine amount, it will undoubtedly total hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Espinal’s not the only person receiving such letters. There are more than 40 immigrants in sanctuary nationwide and while all are under threat of deportation, ICE is trying out this tactic on Espinal and six other women in sanctuary—threatening massive fines and possible criminal prosecution (also a new development).  

“I was hoping not to get another letter. What [ICE] does is out of my control,” Espinal told Prism days after receiving the ICE notice. “I will continue to fight to stay with my family. I have faith in God, and I believe that God will help us get through this and make sure it is resolved.”

High-Profile Sanctuary Leaders

The seven women in sanctuary being threatened by ICE have been members of different iterations of a sanctuary collective where they have all been outspoken leaders.

As members of Colectivo Santuario, which later evolved into the National Sanctuary Collective, sanctuary leaders like Espinal and Hilda Ramirez took a major risk by quietly leaving their sanctuary churches to travel to North Carolina and spend several days together learning organizing techniques in summer 2018. When immigrants are in sanctuary, they cannot leave the grounds of the church. If they do, they run the risk of being targeted for enforcement. And members of Colectivo Santuario have been targeted by ICE, including Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who was apprehended by ICE and swiftly deported after attending an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

But this has not deterred sanctuary leaders. Ramirez and other members of the collective have performed direct actions, leaving their sanctuary churches to confront lawmakers and ask for help in gaining their freedom. 

Espinal’s attorney, Lizbeth Mateo, suspects that the women’s self-advocacy and organizing has made them targets. Espinal has been particularly vocal lately, recently refusing to eat until U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) responded to her request for him to meet with her.

“All of these women have appeals or motions to reopen their cases, and they are refusing to back down,” Mateo said. “They are actively trying to find legal avenues to stay in this country and not return to a place they believe they will be harmed and potentially killed. They have been very public about their cases and very outspoken, and I believe that is part of the reason they continue to be targeted.”  

Ramirez and her teenage son, Ivan, have not had a moment’s peace since fleeing domestic violence in Guatemala in 2014. (It’s worth noting that under the Trump administration, there have been efforts to limit protections for women fleeing domestic violence, which is no longer considered a “valid” reason for requesting asylum.) Hilda and Ivan were detained together for almost a year after first arriving in the United States. Since their release from detention, ICE has repeatedly targeted them for deportation. Due to many ups and downs in their immigration cases, they have been forced to take sanctuary twice in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. Ramirez’s recent stretch in sanctuary has lasted two years.

Espinal was 16 when she came to the United States with her father in 1995. She has been in Columbus, Ohio ever since, raising her three children and fighting for asylum. In 2015, her asylum was denied, but she has spent years appealing the decision. In January 2017, as soon as President Trump took office, Espinal was ordered to begin regular check-ins with ICE. During an August 2017 check-in with the agency, she was given her final deportation notice.

‘Something Much Scarier’

In July of this year, when ICE initially sent the women notice it intended to fine them for failing to leave the United States after a final removal order, two types of fines were issued. Immigrants with outstanding deportation orders were notified that they owed up to $799 a day. Immigrants who agreed to voluntarily leave the United States but then didn’t faced a lesser fine—typically a few thousand dollars.

Espinal and Ramirez were hit with some of the highest fines, $497,777 and $303,620, respectively. Their attorneys crafted responses for ICE, and the women boldly spoke out about how the fines were meant to intimidate them. Ramirez called ICE’s tactics “psychological violence.”

Then, in October, ICE announced it was withdrawing the fines for all seven women.

“Following consideration of matters you forwarded for ICE review, and in the exercise of the [sic] its discretion under applicable regulations, ICE hereby withdraws the Notice of Intention to Fine,” ICE officer Lisa Hoechst wrote Espinal in an Oct. 17 letter.

But that was just a temporary reprieve.

Before Espinal and the other women received ICE’s most recent threatening letters dated December 5, Mateo caught wind of an “exclusive” published by the right-leaning Washington Times. “[ICE] said it also has taken the first steps to revive massive fines —some as large as a half-million dollars—against a group of high-profile ‘illegal’ immigrants who have taken sanctuary in churches across the country to resist their deportations,” the outlet reported.

“ICE talked to the Washington Times before the sanctuary leaders received the letters. We basically found out these letters were coming because of the Washington Times,” Mateo said.

What the Washington Times failed to mention, according to Mateo, was that ICE made a mistake when it first sent out the July notices that included dollar amounts the women allegedly owed.

“When we responded to the initial letters, part of our argument was that they gave no prior notice for these hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. They were basically forced to withdraw the fines because they didn’t follow procedure,” Mateo said. “That’s pretty typical of this administration. They skip steps, either because they’re incompetent or they think that people won’t fight back. When they withdrew the fines in October, it seemed clear they would renew the fines eventually. What we weren’t expecting was this new threat of criminal charges. This goes beyond exorbitant fines into something much scarier.”

When an immigrant enters sanctuary, they live in a church full-time because they are being targeted for deportation and have no other recourse for remaining in the United States. There is no law that says ICE will not carry out enforcement in a church, but there is a 2011 memo advising field officers and agents to avoid carrying out immigration enforcement in so-called “sensitive locations,” which include schools, hospitals, and churches. Over the years, ICE has chipped away at this memo, detaining young asylum seekers at school bus stops, targeting immigrants in hospitals seeking medical care, and luring undocumented immigrants out of churches with fake text messages.

Other than the agency’s ultimate goal of detaining and deporting the seven women in sanctuary, attorneys and advocates working with the asylum seekers are confused as to why ICE would expend so many resources on these particular women, given there are thousands of people with final orders of removal in the country.

ICE spokesperson Richard Rocha told Prism in a statement that the agency is “employing every tool available to urge compliance with judicial orders.”

“Our country’s immigration laws are not simply suggestions, and people should not be surprised when there are consequences for not complying,” Rocha wrote in an email. “If removable aliens fail to adhere to an order of removal, or continue to evade arrest, ICE will target their wallets to urge compliance.”

‘We Reserve the Right To Enter The Church’

The attorneys working with the asylum seekers aren’t sure what ICE’s next step will be. But the letters received earlier this month requested that the women individually present themselves to their local ICE field office, which spurred fear of instant or imminent detainment and deportation.

And that’s a well-founded fear. In 2018, ICE frequently turned routine check-ins into deportation, either by informing the person they have 30 days to leave the country or by detaining them on the spot. Advocates developed a name for it: “silent raids.” This enforcement strategy punished people who were doing as they were instructed—immigrants who had deep roots in the United States and spent years working with ICE. In turn, ICE saw them as low-hanging fruit after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that made everyone in the country without authorization deportable.

For her December 17 appointment with ICE, Espinal sent her church’s pastor, Joel Miller, in her place rather than appearing herself. Ramirez sent her attorney along with Jim Rigby, the longtime reverend of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church where she is in sanctuary.

Mateo, who is based in California and could not be present for the appointment in Ohio, prepared a statement on Espinal’s behalf, informing the field office that Espinal has a petition for review pending. According to Mateo, authorities at the field office told Espinal’s pastor that they wanted to speak to Espinal personally. The federal immigration agency also confirmed that they would be pursuing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against Espinal.

When the pastor brought up the potential criminal charges, expressing concern for what it would mean for Espinal and the church, officials at the field office told the pastor that they don’t make decisions on what to do on individual cases; decisions come from headquarters in Washington.

As of today, there has been no effort to criminally prosecute Espinal, but Ramirez’s pastor and attorney had a markedly different conversation with immigration authorities.

Claudia Muñoz, an organizer with the Austin, Texas-based immigrants’ rights organization Grassroots Leadership, has been working with Ramirez on her deportation defense campaign for two years. According to the organizer, the exchange Ramirez’s attorney and pastor had with ICE on her behalf was much more contentious and alarming.

Ramirez’s notice was issued by the field office director in San Antonio, but Ramirez was instructed to present herself at ICE’s federal building in Austin—to deportation officers.

“One of our organizers asked the deportation officer if he could guarantee that ICE would not enter the church. He said, ‘We’ve not entered churches before.’ After a back and forth, he said that he couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t enter the church; he said, ‘We reserve the right to enter the church,’” Muñoz said. “I absolutely think this is something ICE wants to do, though it’s not really in their jurisdiction. But it is scary, and it says a lot that one rogue officer thinks he has the power to carry out enforcement in a church.”

Entering a church to carry out immigration enforcement would be unprecedented, though Muñoz is correct: It wouldn’t be ICE’s jurisdiction. If federal immigration authorities choose to pursue criminal charges against the sanctuary leaders, ICE would refer them to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for prosecution, which means enforcement would be carried out by the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS).

USMS is responsible for a wide range of services—from providing judicial security to apprehending fugitives. The nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency, it is also responsible for coordinating, scheduling, and handling prisoners in federal custody, and this includes immigrants. USMS does not have a sensitive locations memo, and it would be federal marshals tasked with entering the churches to remove asylum seekers like Espinal and Ramirez.

David Bennion, a Philadelphia-based immigration attorney who works directly with the National Sanctuary Collective and represents immigrants in sanctuary, said ICE’s latest threats against the seven asylum-seeking women in sanctuary is “an attempt to use the authority of the state to terrorize immigrant communities.”

“By definition, entering sanctuary is a religious practice and I don’t think ICE knows what to do with that, other than escalating its threats,” Bennion said. “If ICE is really considering pursuing prosecution, it wouldn’t work without very close collaboration between different agencies, principally ICE and DOJ. Does the DOJ want to do ICE’s dirty work, breaking down church doors and dragging out mothers and children? It’s very brazen for ICE to claim it obeys its sensitive locations memo if its plan is just to outsource its enforcement.”

But there is another route ICE could take, and there is a precedent for it. Mateo and Bennion said that ICE could pursue prosecution against faith leaders for “harboring” or otherwise assisting undocumented immigrants with final orders of removal.

In the 1980s, when the sanctuary movement first emerged in the United States, faith leaders who opened their church doors to Salvadoran asylum seekers fleeing civil war were targeted for prosecution. More recently, Scott Warren was facing 20 years in prison in Arizona after providing water, lodging, and medical care to two Central American migrants who entered the United States without authorization. Warren is a volunteer with No More Deaths, an organization that provides humanitarian aid to migrants in the borderlands. The government tried Warren twice; the first attempt ended in a mistrial and he was found not guilty in the second.

Whether ICE ultimately decides to target clergy, the fates of these asylum seekers are in the hands of federal immigration authorities who are fixated on removing them from the country.

Espinal’s family members regularly stay with her in the church, but they do not live there full-time. Without being able to leave the church to spend time with her husband and children, Espinal has done everything in her power to remain in the United States.

She said ICE has been “trying over and over to criminalize us. They will do anything to get us out of this church,” Espinal said. “But I will do anything to keep my family together.”

UPDATED: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the group Colectivo Santuario is now defunct; it has been updated to reflect that Colectivo Santuario evolved into the National Sanctuary Collective.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.