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ICE tells asylum seeker living at church to leave US or face fines, prosecution

An unidentified Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation officer. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Two months after Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped its intention to fine an Austin-based asylum seeker more than $300,000, ICE this month sent her a new warning letter: If she fails to leave the country per her order of removal, she may face renewed fines and imprisonment.

Hilda RamÍrez, who lives with her son in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in North Austin, is among at least seven women living in churches across the country who received a “notice of consequences for failing to depart” letter.

RamÍrez has been offered sanctuary at the church twice since 2016. In March, her request for extended deferred action to temporarily stay in the country was denied by ICE. Fearing deportation to Guatemala, where she said her safety is in danger, RamÍrez decided to remain in sanctuary.

“The letter was clearly intended to frighten and intimidate this brave woman who fled violence in her native land, but instead of being treated as an asylum seeker, or even as a human being, she has been hounded at every turn by policies that can only be called racist and anti-immigrant,” said Jim Rigby, longtime minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. “If anything, this letter reinforces our commitment to obey the biblical command to open our doors to those who seek sanctuary from oppression, even if that oppression comes from our own government.”

Six months ago, RamÍrez received a letter informing her of ICE’s intention to fine her. A similar letter was sent to several other female asylum seekers living in churches across the country. According to its notice, ICE said the fines can go up to $799 for each day in the country illegally. RamÍrez’s fine totaled $303,620.

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ICE rescinded the fines in October without citing a specific reason for the withdrawal.

According to an interview last week with The Washington Times, Henry Lucero, ICE’s deputy chief of enforcement and removal operations, said the agency revoked most of those notices after it realized that the immigrants had not received an initial warning. He said more than 200 of those letters were sent over the past year.

Lucero told the newspaper the fines were not intimidation tactics. “This is a law,” he said. “Our country’s immigration laws are not simply suggestions.”

RamÍrez’s case was among those that received national attention as sanctuary advocates banded together for collective legal support and called fines “retaliation” for the women seeking refuge at churches.

Attorney Lizbeth Mateo, whose client Edith Espinal has been living in an Ohio church and received the same warning letter this month, said she’s concerned about what the new notices could mean for the safety of these women living in churches.

Under a 2011 ICE policy, churches are considered “sensitive locations” where immigration enforcement should not be conducted. However, the policy has several exceptions.

If the agency decides to pursue criminal charges against the women, Mateo said she worries that could mean ICE potentially raiding churches.

“What would happen to (asylum seekers)? What would happen to the churches? What’s safe? Is nothing safe?” she said.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order shortly after his inauguration calling on the Homeland Security Department to collect fines and penalties from people who had entered the country illegally and those who facilitate their presence in the country.

“ICE is committed to using various enforcement methods — including arrest, detention, technological monitoring and financial penalties — to enforce U.S. immigration law and maintain the integrity of legal orders issued by judges,” the agency said in a statement released this summer when it first sent RamÍrez a letter stating its intent to fine.

The National Sanctuary Collective said it plans to continue to ask for political support from members of Congress.

“My faith has guided and carried me this far, and it will continue to do so as ICE threatens to prosecute me even further,” RamÍrez said in a statement. “It is telling that ICE decided to send us these threatening letters so close to Christmas. My son and I will continue to be with our community, and ask that other people of faith join us in divine obedience as we stand against this evil attempt to prosecute, imprison and deport us.”

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©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.