Church Joins Lawsuit Against ICE with Religious Discrimination Claims

WASHINGTON – Today, the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City joined a lawsuit, brought by four sanctuary leaders and immigrant rights advocacy groups, suing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and various officials for targeting the women with retaliatory and excessive civil fines. For several years, one of the women and her young daughters have been living in the church, which offered them sanctuary when they faced deportation orders and feared persecution and violence if they returned to their home country. The other women took sanctuary in churches in Austin, TX, Columbus, OH, and Charlottesville, VA. The lawsuit alleges that ICE targeted the sanctuary leaders with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines in an attempt to stop the women from speaking out and participating in the sanctuary movement.

“The members of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City voted to join the lawsuit because these fines are not only unconscionable, but illegal,” said Rev. Tom Goldsmith. “As a faith community, we cannot remain passive. We must advocate for those who have been marginalized in the humane effort to right the tyranny of injustice.”

“It was an act of faith of the First Unitarian Church to offer sanctuary to me and my daughters, and an act of faith for me to accept,” said Vicky Chávez, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I have been fighting for almost 38 months to keep my daughters safe, and the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City has been our home—a safe place for us. These have not been easy months for me but I have faith that with the help of the Biden administration, we will be free. I will continue to raise my voice to fight against this broken immigration system that has affected and separated so many families in this country. I am a refugee, but thanks to God and the church, I can be with my daughters without being separated from them.”

Each of the women who sought sanctuary fled persecution in her country of origin and became a leader in the sanctuary movement. In the summer of 2019, ICE targeted the women with notices of intent to seek up to $500,000 in fines from each of them. The notices were abruptly withdrawn, only to be re-issued several months later, in 2020. Today, each woman faces the possibility of fines of approximately $60,000.

Edith Espinal said, “I have finally been able to leave sanctuary, but I will continue fighting these unjust fines from my home with my family.”

Records obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation confirm that these fines were part of a years-long effort by high-level Trump administration officials and ICE to target sanctuary leaders. In addition to the lawsuit challenging the fines and seeking accountability for the retaliation, advocates have called on President Biden to drop egregious fines and grant the rest of the sanctuary leaders stays of removal so they can leave their houses of worship safely.

Hilda Ramírez said, “Although the immigration authorities continue to threaten me and I’m suffering from great anxiety and fear, I will continue fighting for my son and myself.”

María Chavalán-Sut added, “ICE wants to charge you for keeping yourself safe, but in this place, in these lands, life is sacred. I ask ICE for more humane treatment, no fines, and freedom for everyone.”

Those bringing the lawsuit say that targeting people taking sanctuary in churches violates religious freedom, and the lawsuit includes claims of religious discrimination. Churches began offering sanctuary to refugees in the 1980s, during a crackdown on those seeking asylum, and in recent years churches across the country have opened their doors to immigrants and asylum seekers facing deportation orders. Hospitals, schools, churches, and other places of worship require prior authorization before ICE can conduct raids and arrests.

Said David Bennion, Executive Director of Free Migration Project, “It is inexcusable that the Biden administration has not dropped the egregious civil fines against the women who took sanctuary in churches around the country under the Trump administration. More than two months into the Biden presidency, some people are still living in sanctuary churches out of fear of arrest and deportation by ICE. So far, the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress have failed these brave sanctuary leaders.”

The lawsuit is on behalf of four sanctuary leaders – Vicky Chávez, María Chavalán Sut, Edith Espinal, and Hilda Ramírez – as well as Austin Sanctuary Network, Free Migration Project, and now the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, all represented by Just Futures Law, the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic, and the Center for Constitutional Rights. It includes claims against ICE and various officials, under the First and Eighth Amendments and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, alleging that the levying of these fines is discriminatory retaliation and infringes upon the plaintiffs’ rights of free speech, association, and religion, as well as the right to be free from excessive fines.

Katie Matejcak of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic said, “ICE’s retaliation has caused immeasurable harm to sanctuary leaders and the congregations that fight alongside them.” Elena Hodges, also from the clinic, added, “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.”

For more information on the case, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page. 

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