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Center for Constitutional Rights, Jan. 19, 2021 - Joined by Immigrant Rights Groups, Women in Sanctuary Seek to Hold Federal Immigration Officials Accountable Under Religious Freedom Restoration Act, First and Eighth Amendments for Targeting Leaders of Sanctuary Movement
"Four women living in sanctuary, along with Austin Sanctuary Network (ASN) and Free Migration Project (FMP), filed a lawsuit on Tuesday suing U.S. immigration agencies and officials for targeting sanctuary leaders with retaliatory and excessive civil fines.
Each of the plaintiffs is a leader in the modern sanctuary movement. The sanctuary movement originally began in the 1980s as resistance to government oppression. Today, houses of worship across the country are continuing that tradition and have come together in support of immigrant rights, including by offering sanctuary as an act of solidarity to people who would otherwise be deported.
“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,” Austin Sanctuary Network chair Peggy Morton said. “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 women 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. They also allege that the government has violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The decision to take sanctuary is an act of faith. Each of the individual 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 These notices were abruptly withdrawn, only to be re-issued several months later in 2020 against several individuals.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. The 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. 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,” said Vicky Chavez, a plaintiff in the new lawsuit and a targeted sanctuary movement leader residing in Salt Lake City, Utah .
Hilda Ramirez, another plaintiff and sanctuary movement leader residing in Austin, Texas, noted that ICE's fines were particularly shocking in light of the fact that this very agency is preventing the leaders 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. 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.”
ICE's 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, recalls, “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.
David Bennion, Executive Director of the Free Migration Project says,“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.
“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, said, “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.”
“ICE's civil fines were designed to stop sanctuary leaders from speaking out and are transparently punitive,” said Elena Hodges of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. “Their targeting of sanctuary leaders is just the most recent chapter of U.S. immigration agencies’ long history of retaliation against the sanctuary movement,” added Katie Matejcak, alsoof the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.
“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,” said Dinesh McCoy, a legal fellow at Just Futures Law.
To learn more about the case and read today’s filing, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.
For more information about the plaintiff organizations, please visit: