July 3, 2019 7:48 pm

Immigrants taking sanctuary in U.S. churches to avoid deportation face large fines

In this Jan. 10, 2018, file photo, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents gather before serving an employment audit notice at a 7-Eleven convenience store, in Los Angeles.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File
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Immigrants taking sanctuary in U.S. churches to avoid deportation are being told by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that they face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines under a little-used federal law, attorneys said.

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A lawyer representing a woman at a Columbus, Ohio, church said Wednesday that her client and at least nine others in similar circumstances around the country recently received notification threatening civil penalties that amount to about $800 daily for not leaving the United States.

Attorney Lizbeth Mateo said she hasn’t previously seen the Immigration and Nationality Act used to pursue such fines in that way and believes it’s an attempt to scare her client and others into leaving, not a pursuit of money they don’t have.

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“They’re trying to break her resolve,” Mateo said. “They’re trying to intimidate her.”

Spokesmen for ICE have told reporters that the agency “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 fine total was $497,777 for Mateo’s client, 42-year-old Edith Espinal, a mother of three from Mexico who has been at a Columbus church since October 2017 while searching for a way to legally stay in the U.S. Espinal’s reaction to the notice was anger, disbelief and indignation, but it didn’t change her mind about trying to stay, Mateo said.

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They have 30 days to respond to the notification and are still exploring their options, Mateo said.

Word of fines totalling $300,000 to $500,000 also was received in the past week for sanctuary-seekers staying in churches in Colorado, Texas, Utah and Virginia, she said.

And notice of a $314,000 fine was sent for a 38-year-old Honduran woman, Rosa Ortez Cruz, her attorney, Jeremy McKinney, told The Washington Post. Cruz has said she stays at a church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, because she fears for her life if she is deported.

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“Over $300,000 being assessed against a person that has nothing?” McKinney told the newspaper. “It might as well be a million dollars.”

Mateo noted that dozens more immigrants have taken sanctuary around the country. She said she isn’t sure why some apparently are facing fines while others aren’t.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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