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For Immediate Release

Contact

Maria del Carmen Rodriguez for Spanish, Austin Sanctuary Network Organizer at (512) 773-4508  carmendezuvieta40@gmail.com

Peggy Morton, Board President Austin Sanctuary Network at (512) 751-6415, peggy@austinsanctuarynetwork.org

For Vicky Chávez and First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City: Joan M. Gregory, Sanctuary Director, First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, UT at 801-949-2906, joanmzg@gmail.com

Jen Nessel, Center for Constitutional Rights, (212) 614-6449, jnessel@ccrjustice.org

Press Release

Sanctuary Leaders, Immigrant Rights Groups, Church Reinstate Lawsuit Against ICE With New Claims

WASHINGTON -

Four sanctuary leaders – Vicky Chávez, María Chavalán Sut, Edith Espinal, and Hilda Ramírez – along with Austin Sanctuary Network (ASN), Free Migration Project (FMP), and First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, have filed a Second Amended Complaint in their lawsuit against U.S. immigration agencies and officials for targeting the leaders with retaliatory and excessive civil fines. They added new claims under the Federal Torts Claim Act (FTCA), alleging that the immigration agencies and officials intentionally and recklessly inflicted emotional distress on the sanctuary leaders through the civil fines policy under which they were fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. The groups also sent a sign-on letter today to Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from clergy members, faith leaders, congregations, and allied communities across the country calling for redress.

The sanctuary leaders are four asylum-seeking women who, under the threat of deportation, took sanctuary in houses of worship. Each woman became an immigrant rights activist and leader, garnering significant media attention as part of the national sanctuary movement and received support from the organizations joining them in the suit. Records obtained through ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation show a concerted effort on behalf of the Trump administration to track and target these leaders over a multi-year period and to penalize them with the largest fines statutorily possible for “failure to depart” with a deportation order. The lawsuit alleges that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeted these sanctuary leaders with the enormous  fines to stop the women from speaking out, infringing upon their rights of free speech, association, and religion under the First Amendment, their right to be free from excessive fines under the Eighth Amendment, and their religious freedom under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). 

María Chavalán-Sut said, “The fine imposed by ICE was an incalculably stressful pressure tactic, a direct attack on our lives.”

Last year, on April 23, 2021, DHS Secretary Mayorkas announced that the Biden administration would no longer be pursuing civil fines for “failure to depart,” acknowledging it as an “unnecessary and punitive measure.” Despite this change in direction, the administration is poised to defend the policy in the litigation against the sanctuary leaders and has not conceded the illegality of the policy. Statutory authorization for the fines policy remains, leaving this administration and future administrations free to reinstate the policy at any time.

“This case raises serious questions about the Biden administration’s commitment to free speech, religious freedom, and the reversal of Trump-era policies,” said Jencey Paz and Lily Gutterman of the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic.

It has taken nearly a year for sanctuary leaders to receive confirmation that their fines are officially canceled. At present, three of the four sanctuary leaders still await an official notice. The sanctuary leaders, who are unable to pay the fines, allege that ICE has caused them considerable emotional and physical distress through the exorbitant fines and their failure to cancel them, in violation of the Federal Torts Claims Act (FTCA). ICE has previously denied each of the leaders’ FTCA claims through the administrative process, despite supporting medical records and statements from health professionals about the harms they have suffered. The sanctuary leaders now add these claims to the lawsuit to contest this determination.

Vicky Chávez said, “When I received my fine letter the first time, my legs were shaking. The letter came in English. I thought I read it wrong, so I asked someone from the church to please read the letter and explain it to me, but I was right. Since then, my nights have been longer. Being able to sleep became uncontrollable. I was afraid in the church knowing that ICE could arrive at any moment, and I did not know how to react or how to protect my daughters. Any strange noise scared me, so I asked for help to have someone check the church. The migraines became more intense. The nerves remain.”

Edith Espinal said, “From the first time the church secretary informed me that I had mail from ICE, I was so scared that I spent nights without being able to sleep. I was more depressed for not being able to know or understand why the administration of former President Trump and ICE were attacking us in this way – for wanting to keep my family together. To this day, more than a year has passed and I still have a fine of almost $60,000, even though Secretary Mayorkas promised to withdraw these fines.”

“After passing a credible fear interview at the border, the U.S. government locked my son and me in a detention center for 11 months, where we ate spoiled food and drank water that smelled and tasted horrible until they released us and forced me to wear an ankle shackle for eight months that hurt me and made me bleed,” said Hilda Ramírez, who was fined $323,000, a fine that was later reduced to $59,000 before the U.S. rescinded the fine two weeks ago. “Why did President Biden continue this extortion from the Trump administration for a year when it was meant to silence me? My son and I have suffered so much from this persecution and trauma, all because I took refuge in a church and spoke publicly alongside people who love and trust us. The government must stop this and, at a minimum, use prosecutorial discretion and grant me the help I asked for at the border more than seven years ago.”

The sanctuary leaders have garnered public support in their efforts to seek redress. Today, they are sending a sign-on letter to Secretary Mayorkas of DHS. The letter has 965 signatories from across the United States: including 190 clergy members and faith leaders from diverse faith traditions, 96 organizations and faith congregations, and 679 community members and leaders. It calls for a grant of deferred action and other forms of prosecutorial discretion for each sanctuary leader. Immigration relief and relief from future fines remain the utmost priority for the sanctuary leaders, FMP, ASN, and First Unitarian Church.

“As an ally of Hilda and her son, I am shocked and disappointed to see how slow President Biden and his administration have been to resolve this lawsuit considering all the promises he made during his campaign and having acknowledged the mistakes made during the previous administration he served under,” ASN Organizer María del Carmen Rodríguez said. “As an immigrant and survivor of pain and persecution in my own life from the same failed immigration policy in the U.S., and as an ally and friend to Hilda, I want to see compassion, action, and resolution. This time is traumatizing these people and their children, and they will carry this trauma throughout their lives. We beg the government to stop with these tortures by granting a solution to these four sanctuary leaders.”

Joan Gregory of First Unitarian Church said, “The community response to collecting signatures in support of Vicky, Maria, Hilda, and Edith was amazing. In just a short period of time we collected 965 signatures. Signatures have come from all over the country – in fact from 34 states and the District of Columbia, from California to Maine, from Washington to Florida, and all points in between.”

Ms. Gregory added, “We need the Biden administration to keep its promises, to transform our system from a deportation system to a true immigration system, welcoming all 11 million immigrants who are already here and establishing an equitable and just system for those who will continue to seek refuge, asylum, safety, and freedom.”

For more information, please visit:

Individual Plaintiffs

Hilda Ramírez Méndez and Iván (Austin, Texas)

Edith Espinal Moreno (Columbus, Ohio)

María Chavalán Sut (Charlottesville, Virginia)

Vicky Chávez (Salt Lake City, Utah)

Organizational Plaintiffs

Austin Sanctuary Network, Austin, TX 

First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City, UT 

Free Migration Project, Philadelphia, PA

Attorneys

NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic 

Just Futures Law

Center for Constitutional Rights

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The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. CCR is committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

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