SALT LAKE CITY — Immigrant rights groups released new documents Thursday, depicting ICE surveillance of immigrants taking sanctuary in U.S churches and plans to roll out massive civil fines against nine of them.
Behind closed doors at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, you’ll find Vicky Chavez.
“This is really, a really, really hard time for me,” Chavez said in a Zoom interview Thursday.
Chavez and her two daughters, ages nine and three, have called the church home since they left their country of Honduras 2-years and 9-months ago.
“[People] think we are here just because, just because we want to stay here, but I always say we are here by necessity,” Chavez said.
“I’m fighting for my kids, I’m doing all of this for my kids,” she continued. “I know if we leave the country, and I return to my country, our lives will be very [in] danger.”
Being unable to leave the walls around her, Vicky and her daughters have faced a number of challenges. However, last summer, she faced one of the biggest challenges yet – a large fine from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The amount was nearly half a million dollars.
“How is it possible that we could receive a fine of that amount?” Chavez said in disbelief. “How could [ICE] possibly think I have that much money?”
Vicky was one of nine ‘outspoken sanctuary leaders’ currently residing in churches across the United States, to receive a fine nearing 500-thousand-dollars.
According to immigrant rights groups, ICE officials were able to impose the fine through a previously unused section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, under which ICE may issue fines of hundreds of dollars per day.
After the fines were imposed, attorneys in support of the sanctuary leaders began to raise questions regarding the constitutionality of the INA civil fines statues, and mobilized in opposition to the fines.
Following the push-back, ICE rescinded the fines in October 2019, in February 2020 ICE reissued notices of intent to fine sanctuary leaders at a lower amount.
Sanctuary leaders brought about a second wave of legal response opposing the fines – the matter has been pending since.
Hoping to breathe new life into the issue ahead of the presidential election, immigrant rights groups released newly obtained documents Thursday, depicting the planning and behavior of ICE officials leading up to the issuance of fines.
“It’s almost like an email confession of exactly how they intended to use this part of the law to punish and target the sanctuary leaders,” said Chavez’s attorney, David Bennion.
“We learned very clearly that the sanctuary leaders were being monitored and surveilled by ICE with this type of retaliation in mind,” he continued.
The groups released 17-pages of partially redacted documents, including court filings and email correspondence between ICE leaders.
According to the documentation, the ‘grand total of the proposed penalties’ against the nine sanctuary leaders, amounted to $3,066,560.
“It was shocking, and I believe ICE intended it to have that impact to alarm and frighten the community leaders who have stood up for themselves, their freedom and their families,” said Bennion.
Now as Election Day looms, sanctuary leaders hope to gain the attention of presidential candidates so changes can be made.
“Compassion does not stop at the border,” said First Unitarian Church reverend, Tom Goldsmith. “We need to make every effort to fix the immigration system which is not only broken, but shattered into a million pieces.”
“One day these people will understand why we made the decision to take sanctuary here,” Chavez said as she shook her head.