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Trump administration threatens hefty fines on immigrants who elude deportation

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers gather for a debriefing after staging raids to arrest undocumented immigrants April 11, 2018, in Brooklyn. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The Trump administration is threatening to impose hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil penalties on immigrants who disobey deportation orders by seeking refuge in churches or elsewhere in the United States, federal officials said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Washington headquarters on Monday notified a woman seeking sanctuary in a North Carolina church that the agency intends to fine her more than $300,000. An immigrant in Colorado faces a fine of more than $500,000.

The agency generally does not conduct enforcement operations in churches, and although financial penalties for evading deportation have been on the books for years, they were rarely imposed.

ICE’s headquarters issued the notices days after President Trump postponed immigration raids that would have targeted parents and children with outstanding deportation orders, a threat that reinvigorated efforts in the United States to shield migrants from deportation in churches and homes.

Rosa Ortez Cruz, 38, a mother of four living at a church in Chapel Hill, received a notice that ICE intends to fine her $314,007 for “willfully” not leaving the United States and for having “connived or conspired” to avoid deportation. She has said she fears for her life if deported to her native Honduras and has appealed her case to the federal courts.

“Over $300,000 being assessed against a person that has nothing? It might as well be a million dollars. It might as well be a billion dollars,” said Ortez Cruz’s attorney, Jeremy McKinney, of Greensboro, who received the June 25 notice by certified mail. “She has nothing of monetary value at this point. She is unemployed. She lives in a church.”

Federal officials said they quietly began assessing the civil penalties in December as part of a rolling effort to curb sanctuary jurisdictions that have thwarted Trump’s efforts to deport undocumented immigrants and to hold immigrants accountable for breaking the law. Trump called for enforcing the penalties in an executive order days after taking office in 2017.

ICE said it is issuing two types of fines. One targets immigrants with outstanding deportation orders, such as Ortez Cruz, threatening them with penalties of up to $799 a day. In a year, an immigrant could accrue fines of more than $291,635.

A second fine targets immigrants who agreed to leave the United States voluntarily and then did not. They would typically face a lesser fine of up to $4,792 total, although an immigration judge could increase or decrease the penalty slightly.

The agency must notify immigrants about the civil penalty before imposing the fines and give them at least 30 days to dispute it. Once ICE issues a fine, the immigrant can appeal it to the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals.

“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,” ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke said in a statement.

It remains unclear how the Trump administration will enforce the fines. Immigrants who do not pay will be referred to the Treasury Department for collection. Any payments also will go to that agency.

Immigration lawyers and others say the fines probably will never be paid and are an attempt to frighten immigrants amid new threats of raids. After Trump said last month that he would deport “millions” of people from the United States, advocates for immigrants reactivated rapid-response networks and called on churches to offer families sanctuary to shield them from deportation.

The civil penalties for violating immigration laws have existed since 1996, when President Bill Clinton (D) signed a hard-line bill into law. In the rare instances when fines have been assessed, they have been lower, about $1,000, said Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Trump has repeatedly blasted sanctuary jurisdictions for not helping immigration officials detain and deport immigrants, even those arrested for a crime, and earlier this year swept out ICE’s acting director and his homeland security secretary, saying he wanted to go in a “tougher” direction.

But advocates for immigrants say Trump’s broad crackdown is also ensnaring people arrested for traffic violations and other minor offenses.

Ortez Cruz, the woman in sanctuary in North Carolina, had traffic violations and misdemeanor charges stemming from an altercation with her then-teenage son that led to her deportation proceedings, her attorney said.

She and her son, who is now 20, arrived in the United States from Honduras in 2002 after fleeing her ex-partner, who had stabbed her multiple times. She now has three more children, all U.S. citizens, ages 14, 10 and 8.

She has appealed her immigration case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which is expected to hear arguments this year.

Because immigration officials could deport her while her case is pending, she fled in April 2018 to the Church of the Reconciliation, a Presbyterian church, and a network of volunteers is caring for her.

Sanctuary movements have frustrated Trump’s efforts to increase deportations, and in April, he threatened to send the record numbers of families crossing the Mexican border to sanctuary cities and towns.

But sanctuary cities have largely welcomed the immigrants and quickly activated a rapid-response network to hide them in churches and private homes when Trump threatened mass deportations last month. Outraged advocates took to social media with offers to help immigrants hide, using the hashtag #ProtectMyNeighbor.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service began an initiative called the United Sanctuaries of America to call on congregations and organizations to serve as a “network of sanctuaries” to protect immigrants.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said the fines are an attempt to drive immigrants underground and make them afraid to appeal their cases, particularly if they missed a court hearing and were ordered deported.

“We believe this is intentional and tragically advances efforts to deport migrants without the need to exercise due process,” she said, adding that the fines render the sanctuary efforts “more relevant than ever.”

About 500,000 of the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States have outstanding deportation orders and are considered fugitives, according to 2018 ICE budget documents.

Most were spared deportation under the Obama administration because they had U.S.-born children or no criminal records. Federal officials instructed ICE agents to focus on criminals and recent border crossers.

Trump terminated President Barack Obama’s priority system and vowed to deport anyone in the United States illegally. He also threatened to crack down on sanctuary cities.

But sanctuary jurisdictions have swelled into the hundreds under Trump. The president has not matched the Obama administration’s peak deportation numbers, and he has struggled to contain the historic numbers of families, particularly children, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum.