Four organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday against federal officials who have levied unprecedented six-figure fines against asylum-seeking women in sanctuary churches nationwide, and subsequently refused to provide information that explains why.

Amid an ongoing week of action led by a collective of immigrants in sanctuary across the U.S., Austin Sanctuary Network, Free Migration Project, Grassroots Leadership, and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed the federal lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review in the Southern District of New York. According to the advocates, these federal agencies have failed to produce any documents in response to their September 2019 Freedom of Information Act request.

As Prism has previously reported, seven women who are fighting their deportations by living in houses of worship received letters from ICE in December informing them of massive fines. Among them was Edith Espinal, who came to the U.S. in 1995 at age of 16. Upon arrival, she moved to Columbus, Ohio, where she has continued to live, raising her three children and fighting for asylum. In 2015, her asylum petition was denied, but she has spent years appealing the decision. In January 2017, as soon as President Donald 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. She has lived in the Mennonite Church in Columbus ever since.

Espinal’s December letter from ICE threatened civil and criminal penalties, including monetary fines and imprisonment, citing section 274D(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which warns that undocumented immigrants may be subject to civil penalties in the amount of $799 per day if they do not depart the U.S. after receiving a final order of removal. This was the second time the Mexico native and mother of three received a notice from ICE threatening exorbitant fines; the first letter came to the church in July. While Espinal has not confirmed the final fine amount, she said Wednesday it was “almost half a million dollars.”

Espinal said that in the months since she received notice that ICE is attempting to fine her, she’s had many sleepless nights. “It’s taking a psychological toll. I’m afraid a lot and I get headaches,” Espinal said. “I worry that immigration will come into the church.”

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. ICE’s threat of criminal prosecution could set the stage for enforcement to be carried out in churches. So far, federal immigration authorities have not pursued criminal charges against sanctuary leaders. If they did, ICE would refer them to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution, which means U.S. Marshals Service would be tasked with invading churches.

The seven women being targeted for both immigration enforcement and exorbitant fines are living in houses of worship because they fear torture or persecution in their home countries and separation from their families in the U.S. All of them also have appeals or motions to reopen their cases and have actively and publicly fought their deportations as members of different iterations of a sanctuary collective where they are outspoken leaders.

According to the lawsuit, large civil penalties, especially those levied against sanctuary movement leaders who criticize the government, raise “constitutional concerns regarding retaliatory, excessive, and punitive fines.” There is also evidence to suggest that ICE’s fines against the seven women are part of a larger pattern of retaliation against outspoken sanctuary leaders.

Samuel Oliver-Bruno, who was another member of the sanctuary collective, was apprehended by ICE and swiftly deportedafter attending an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). ICE and USCIS tracked social media related to Oliver-Bruno and communicated about him prior to his detainment. Other outspoken leaders like Carmela Apolonio Hernandez have brazenly left their sanctuary churches to perform direct actions, and are now being blocked from adjusting their immigration status by federal authorities.

Because the government issued its exorbitant fines against sanctuary leaders as part of its broader strategy of targeting the women in sanctuary, the lawsuit alleges that “the fines implicate the important liberty interests of millions of people in this country who seek to remain here with their families.” As a result, the information requested by the advocacy organizations related to ICE’s internal policies “will allow the public to engage productively in an ongoing, critical, and pressing public dialogue about immigration in the U.S.”

The morning of February 26, prior to a press call announcing the federal lawsuit, Espinal said she was “nervous and excited”—nervous about once again publicly speaking out against ICE, but excited to potentially gain helpful new insights into ICE’s strategies for targeting people like her.

“In this country, we hear a lot about freedom of speech. We have the right to talk about what immigration is doing to us and why they are fining us so much,” Espinal said, noting that even if she did have the money, she wouldn’t give it to ICE.

“I’d give it to children or poor people who really need it. I wouldn’t give it to immigration to attack families like mine.”

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