ICE Documents Obtained Under Freedom of Information Act Show Surveillance and Targeting of Sanctuary Leaders
October 22, 2020, New York – Today, immigrant rights groups released documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit showing high-ranking Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials’ plans to roll out massive civil fines against undocumented immigrants. The documents also show ICE using the fines to retaliate against sanctuary movement leaders who had been outspoken about immigrant rights. Nine people taking sanctuary in churches across the U.S., unable to leave their houses of worship for fear of deportation, were targeted. Each leader received a fine of up to $500,000 from ICE.
“When I first entered the U.S. seeking refuge, immigration put me and my son in an ice-cold cell without any blankets, in unsanitary conditions, in the middle of the night. Next, ICE took us to a family detention center, and we survived that and eventually made our way to a church asking for help,” said Guatemalan Hilda Ramirez, who has taken sanctuary with her son in Austin, Texas, since February 2016. “Now we learn ICE was surveilling us to punish me with fines for speaking against the injustices. Finally, it’s coming to light.”
The documents released today detail a policy that was years in the making. The groups also released a briefing guide, providing details and context for each document.
Soon after Donald Trump took office, high-ranking ICE officials – including at least one who is closely connected to the extremist architect of Trump’s immigration policies, Stephen Miller – formed a working group dedicated to using civil fines against immigrants in sanctuary. The group identified a previously unused section of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) under which ICE may issue fines of hundreds of dollars per day. In June 2018, ICE created a secret policy memo setting out rules for implementing the civil fines statute and, in 2019, targeted sanctuary leaders with egregious civil fines. By July 2019, the leaders had received fines as high as $500,000 each; all told, the fines surpassed $3 million.
“I am an Indigenous woman. Under a system which denies my fundamental rights, I am a survivor. I remind ICE that they are on stolen, invaded, Indigenous land. I do not owe ICE anything – they are the ones who owe reparations for their injustices,” said María Chavalan Sut, who has lived in sanctuary in Charlottesville, Virginia, since October, 2018.
“ICE's retaliatory attempt to issue fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars against immigrant community leaders living in sanctuary churches violated their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” said David Bennion of Free Migration Project, who is the attorney of one of the targeted sanctuary leaders. “What remains to be seen is whether a potential Biden administration would allow ICE to continue this campaign to silence and punish critics of the Trump administration’s policies.”
Attorneys question the constitutionality of the INA civil fines statute, as well as whether ICE’s implementation was consistent with the statute itself. Invoking these legal issues, a group of the targeted leaders and immigrant rights organizations mobilized in opposition to the fines, and ICE rescinded them in October 2019. However, in February 2020, ICE reissued notices of intent to fine the sanctuary leaders at a lower amount. The targeted sanctuary leaders filed a second legal response opposing the fines, and the matter remains pending. Activists emphasize that the fines constitute retaliation against the sanctuary leaders for their public advocacy and effective leadership of the sanctuary movement.
The documents released today were obtained through a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review filed in February after the three agencies failed to produce virtually any documents in response to a September 2019 FOIA request.
“These documents show how ICE targeted sanctuary leaders who were outspoken about their cases as a way to intimidate immigrants across the country,” said Katie Matejcak of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. “ICE's message to immigrant rights activists is clear: keep quiet or we will try to find a way to silence you,” added Elena Hodges, also of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.
Austin Sanctuary Network Chair Peggy Morton said, “Sanctuary is an act of nonviolent civil disobedience designed to redefine our relationship to each other in community. As people of faith and no faith, we’ve stood behind our values in sheltering sanctuary leaders. Now, it's time for everyone to join our neighbors in need to dismantle our chains.”
Ian Head, coordinator of the Center for Constitutional Rights Open Records Project said, “While it shouldn’t have taken a court order to obtain these records, they show the continued, vital importance of the Freedom of Information Act as a conduit for government transparency, especially when it comes to agencies such as ICE.”
Read the documents released today and the accompanying briefing guide here. For more information on the case, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
For more information about the organizations involved, please visit:
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.