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Around Thanksgiving, another letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrived for Hilda Ramirez at Austin, Texas’, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. The federal immigration agency’s latest correspondence informed Ramirez that she was being fined $59,126 as a “civil penalty pursuant to section 274D of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).” Essentially, the federal immigration agency was once again warning the Indigenous Guatemalan asylum-seeker of a gigantic fine for not complying with their order that she leave the United States.

This was the latest threat in an ongoing saga that began in July 2019. As Prism reported last year, Ramirez is one of seven high profile women who have emerged as leaders in the nationwide sanctuary movement, and ICE has spent more than a year relentlessly working to hit them with exorbitant fines. The women being targeted share some similarities: All are outspoken asylum-seekers, have appeals or motions to reopen their cases, and have actively and publicly tried to find legal avenues to stay in the United States as part of a sanctuary collective led by immigrants.

The latest fines from ICE are significantly less than previous amounts, which the agency was forced to withdraw after failing to follow appropriate procedures for issuing them. For example, Edith Espinal, a Mexican asylum-seeker in sanctuary in Ohio, was improperly issued a $497,777 fine in July. Like Ramirez, Espinal received a new notice over Thanksgiving weekend informing her of ICE’s latest fine, which her attorney Lizbeth Mateo told Prism was nearly $60,000. At least two other women in sanctuary received similar notices from ICE last month.

In a text message to Prism, Ramirez said this entire ordeal has left her feeling sad and upset. “Immigration continues to threaten me,” Ramirez wrote the morning of Dec. 1. “This is very difficult for me. Immigration keeps attacking me.” Ramirez’s only defense against ongoing attacks from the federal government comes through community support provided by organizers, legal advocates, and Austin’s faith community, which provides her with food, clothes, and shelter.

There are lingering questions about what ICE’s ultimate goal is. The agency knows that the women it is targeting with exorbitant fines have no way of paying the debt. All of them are stuck in their sanctuary churches, unable to leave the grounds without risking detainment and deportation. All are also undocumented, which means it is illegal for employers to hire them. There is virtually no way for these women to earn money, let alone the amount of money ICE is fining them.

“I don’t know how they expect me to pay this fine when I can’t even work legally in this country,” Ramirez told Prism. “Are they trapping me into breaking the law?”

Earlier iterations of the fines threatened criminal prosecution, leading sanctuary leaders, attorneys, and advocates in the sanctuary movement to believe that federal agencies were laying the groundwork to enter churches, schools, and hospitals to apprehend sanctuary leaders, in violation of a 2011 memo that advises ICE field officers and agents to avoid carrying out enforcement in “sensitive locations.” However, recently-released documents reveal that the fines may be purely retaliatory, raising serious free speech concerns for immigrants like Ramirez, who fled gender-based violence only to be targeted and penalized as an asylum-seeking woman for engaging in her right to publicly speak out about the state violence she experiences.

ICE’s discretion

Advocates say the timeline of events surrounding sanctuary leaders’ ongoing litigation against ICE illustrates the agency’s retaliatory use of fines. Austin Sanctuary Network, Free Migration Project, Grassroots Leadership, and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) are organizations representing sanctuary leaders, and CCR held a press conference Feb. 26 of this year announcing the litigation. The very next day, letters from ICE went out to sanctuary leaders informing them of fines.

Months later, the virtually same sequence played out again. On October 28, sanctuary leaders held a virtual press conference asking Joe Biden to commit to freeing them if he is elected and announcing they were delivering a petition and letters of support from organizations and elected officials to the Biden campaign. Less than a week later, ICE mailed out its latest notice of tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

A spokesperson from ICE told Prism that the federal immigration agency “does not target unlawfully present aliens based on advocacy positions they hold or in retaliation for critical comments they make.”

“However, ICE does have an obligation to pursue anyone breaking our nation’s immigration laws,” the spokesperson wrote in an email statement. “ICE continues to issue civil fines to aliens who have been ordered removed or granted voluntary departure and fail to depart the United States, including those who seek sanctuary in churches, and fail to comply with judge’s orders of removal. All individuals in violation of U.S. immigration laws may be subject to arrest, detention, fines, and if found removable by final order, removal from the U.S.”

Advocates working with sanctuary leaders said they were aware of instances outside of sanctuary in which ICE has issued civil fines to immigrants with final orders of removal, however those fines were significantly less than those issued to sanctuary leaders. ICE did not respond to Prism’s request for additional information regarding the number of immigrants outside of sanctuary who have been fined.

Documents that sanctuary leaders and their attorneys obtained through the litigation revealed that the practice of imposing retaliatory fines can be traced back to policies established in June 2018 under former ICE acting director Thomas Homan. In a June 19, 2018 order, the director delegated authority to “administer and enforce provisions relating to civil penalties for failure to depart” to a number of lower-level ICE officials, citing a 2004 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Delegation Order and statutory provisions from the INA, the U.S. Code, and the Code of Federal Regulations. Homan also issued a directive outlining the agency’s policy for assessing and collecting civil fines, essentially giving field offices and local-level ICE officers complete discretion in deciding whom to fine.

When combined, Homan’s order and directive enabled ICE to weaponize an obscure, never-before-used immigration statute to levy hefty civil fines against immigrants in sanctuary. With discretion to target whomever they wanted, the agency settled on outspoken asylum-seeking women—many of them mothers who fear death if returned to their home countries.

Emails obtained as part of the litigation showed that in April 2019, ICE set in motion its plan to target sanctuary leaders with fines. ICE field offices were notified if they had at least one sanctuary case within their area of responsibility and the heavily redacted correspondence referenced a “civil fines working group,” indicating to attorneys “that ICE, and perhaps other government actors, undertook a concerted, long-term effort to craft and rationalize the civil fines policy starting as early as 2017.”

Weaponizing laws

Broadly speaking, attorneys and advocates who spoke to Prism said it should concern the American public that obscure laws and policies are being weaponized—especially because these decisions seem to be coming from high-ranking officials in the Trump administration, including Stephen Miller, President Donald Trump’s top adviser on immigration.

Retaliatory civil fines aren’t the only way existing laws have been put to new uses to target immigrants. Once the pandemic started, Miller and the Trump administration took the opportunity to weaponize Title 42, a section of the Public Health Safety Act that allows the U.S. government to temporarily block noncitizens from entering the U.S. “when doing so is required in the interest of public health.” Last month, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan “found that the Trump administration illegally invoked the pandemic to achieve its longstanding goal of keeping out asylum seekers,” Vox’s Nicole Narea reported. However, by that time more than 13,000 children had been deported under the policy.

Documents published by American Oversight in July illustrated another ploy to weaponize existing law, which would ultimately affect immigrants in sanctuary. Beginning in the spring of 2018, Miller began requesting information from Justice Department lawyer Gene Hamilton regarding statutes that could be used to restrict immigration. On March 25, 2018, Miller emailed Hamilton asking him about a “Fine/Penalties Statute”—the same statute cited in ICE’s November letter to Ramirez charging her with a $59,126 fine. Hamilton explained that the “Immigration Enforcement Account” that includes money collected from civil penalties “can be refunded to enforcement activities like removal operations, tracking systems, or ‘the repair, maintenance, or construction on the United States border wall,’” American Oversight reported. In other words, the federal government intended for Ramirez and other asylum seekers to pay for the immigration enforcement terrorizing their communities.

‘Our trust is in you’

Ramirez told Prism that each letter from ICE feels like “another blow” against asylum-seeking women. “I think that they’re only attacking us women, trying to silence us so we don’t speak up, because we have been in the media,” Ramirez said. But she has no choice but to keep on fighting. Her teenage son Ivan lives in the Austin, Texas, church with her and she is committed to getting them out so they can live freely in the United States, no matter how long it takes.

It is not clear if the fines will continue into the new administration, but sanctuary leaders seem optimistic and are looking forward to January when President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

After last month’s contentious election, immigrants in sanctuary released a video with a series of demands: They want to meet with Biden over Zoom and discuss their cases; they want the president-elect to remove their deportation orders; and they want to be freed from their churches.

When Trump took office, immigrants nationwide were forced to take sanctuary in record numbers. These same people now appear cautiously optimistic that Biden will provide some relief from the relentless attacks they have experienced over the last four years.

“Our trust is in you,” the sanctuary leaders say to Biden in their video. “We await your response.”

The Biden transition team did not respond to Prism’s request for comment regarding sanctuary leaders’ appeal or the administration’s plan for immigrants living in sanctuary.

CORRECTION: A prior version of this article misstated information on ICE’s use of civil fines in cases separate from those involving sanctuary. The error has since been corrected.

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is a contributing writer at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.