NEW YORK – A collective of immigrant rights groups has a lawsuit on Wednesday seeking answers about how the Trump administration decided to target sanctuary leaders with six-figure fines.
In the summer of 2019, a number of high-profile activists in sanctuary—all women who fled persecution in their countries of origin—were notified of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s intent to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from each of them.
These notices were abruptly withdrawn, only to be re-issued several months later. The Freedom Of Information Act sought documents concerning this unprecedented spate of civil fines against people who have chosen to take sanctuary while pursuing their legal remedies to remain in the U.S.
“It is so painful to have to continue to endure attacks from ICE when all I want is to be free. These fines couldn’t have been anything other than retaliation for the love and support that I have received from my community here in Austin, TX,” said Hilda Ramirez, an activist and leader of Austin Sanctuary Network who has lived in sanctuary in an Austin, Texas church since 2016. “Behind closed doors, ICE officials have admitted they are targeting me for political reasons, but then they deny it publicly. It is time that ICE tells us exactly why they are targeting me and other women who are in sanctuary,” continued Ramirez. Ramirez was one of a handful of sanctuary leaders who received such an “intent to fine” notice in 2019.
Edith Espinal Moreno, an immigration activist and sanctuary seeker in Ohio, also received such a notice. “It was surprising and upsetting when I received the letter from ICE threatening to fine me. I know they are trying to scare me and other people in sanctuary, but I won’t give up. My faith in God and the support of the community gives me strength to do everything I can to keep my family together,” said Espinal Moreno.
The federal lawsuit was filed Wednesday against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), the U.S. Department of the Treasury (DOT), and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in the Southern District of New York. The three agencies have failed to produce virtually any documents to the requestors, who filed their FOIA request in September 2019.
Urging transparency and accountability, Claudia Muñoz, Interim Executive Co-Director of Grassroots Leadership, stated: “ICE continues to act in a way that makes them seem as though they are not accountable. But as government employees they are in fact accountable, not only to elected officials, but to the public and the courts as well. ICE has made troubling decisions by targeting people for political reasons, and we have every reason to believe the decision to impose costly fines against sanctuary leaders is no different. If they have nothing to hide, they should release any and all communication they had regarding the fines”.
“These fines are part of the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to target, punish, and vilify our nation’s immigrants and immigrants’ rights advocates. From describing sanctuary cities as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘dangerous’ to deploying Customs and Border Protection SWAT-like personnel and withholding federal funds from sanctuary jurisdictions, these fines only serve to retaliate against courageous sanctuary leaders who have dared to advocate for just and humane immigration policies,” said Lupe Aguirre, Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The groups argue that access to these documents is vital because of the retaliatory nature of the fines. “These actions by the U.S. government, and their subsequent lack of transparency, raise serious constitutional concerns about government retaliation for freedom of speech and the imposition of excessive and punitive fines,” said Daniel Lee of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. “They are part and parcel of the Trump administration’s attempts to punish sanctuary leaders and sanctuary jurisdictions,” added Lauren Wilfong of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.
These fines have alarmed immigrant rights activists, media organizations, and Congressional Representatives—sparking vigils, protests, and the introduction of private bills in Congress in support of the women who were fined.
“The egregious fines ICE issued against women in sanctuary show the lengths to which ICE will go to retaliate against immigrant leaders who speak out against family separation and unjust deportation policies. The fact that ICE then rescinded the fines reflects the power of the community that supports these sanctuary leaders. However, the sanctuary leaders need support from our elected officials in Congress because ICE is threatening to renew the fines,” said David Bennion, Executive Director of Free Migration Project.