The federal government has the power to issue such fines but has rarely done so, The Washington Post reported in 2019. Advocates said that when it had, fines had typically been about $1,000. But unable to raid churches where undocumented immigrants had gone into sanctuary, the previous administration had issued the fines as a clear intimidation tactic. Rosa Ortez Cruz, an undocumented mom of four in North Carolina, was fined $314,007. Edith Espinal, another undocumented mom in Ohio, was fined $497,777.
Attorney David Bennion told ABC News in 2019 that the fines were “so egregiously over the top that it’s laughable.” Lizbeth Mateo, an attorney for Espinal, said that the agency was trying to “intimidate my client and other people like her and they’re trying to intimidate the community.” But, there were even more sinister goings-on behind the scenes.
Watchdog group American Oversight revealed in 2020 that former White House aide and noted white supremacist Stephen Miller sought to use the fines to pay for the previous president’s racist and useless border wall. In emails obtained through the Freedom of Information act, former Justice Department attorney Gene Hamilton “affirmed that the money could be used for such purposes as outlined, and added that the penalties could amount to ‘[u]p to $500 (now higher for inflation) per day, per alien.’ Miller replied, ‘Remarkable.’”
In a win for targeted immigrants and their advocates, the previous administration in late 2019 withdrew the fines. But it was a short-lived victory, with the previous administration then again fining Espinal, this time for nearly $60,000. Not that she’d be able to pay that amount either. By February, Espinal had been able to leave the church and return home thanks to new Biden administration priorties, but the fines still remained in place. In a press conference last month, Espinal and others called on President Biden to rescind the outrageous fines.
“President Biden has a choice: he can either double down on the punitive and unjust immigration policies of his predecessor, or start to set things right by cancelling the fines and providing lasting relief to sanctuary leaders,” New York University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic attorney Elena Hodges said according to The Columbus Dispatch last month. “I have finally been able to leave sanctuary, but I will continue fighting these unjust fines from my home with my family,” Espinal said in that report.
The Biden administration did the right thing by rescinding the fines. “This is a victory for community leaders who fought to end the policy,” tweeted the Free Migration Project.
While a number of undocumented immigrants previously in sanctuary have been able to return home so long as they check in periodically with ICE, the threat of deportation will continue to hang over their heads until they win permanent relief. “I feel a great sense of relief that I can leave the church without fear of being deported,” The Austin Chronicle reports Alirio Gamez said. Gamez had been in sanctuary in a church in Austin. “I feel happy that I’m finally able to return to almost normal life. But in Texas, we cannot trust immigration, we need something in writing, and we want to continue to fight for something more permanent.”