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ICE tried to fine immigrants living in sanctuary churches. Now, it’s backing down.

For some, the fines topped $500,000.

A woman and two young children stand in the doorway of a church.
The family of Javier Flores, an immigrant from Mexico, visit him in sanctuary at a Pennsylvania church in March 2017.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has withdrawn hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines it had levied against unauthorized immigrants who sought sanctuary from deportation in churches across the US.

Beginning in December 2018, ICE issued fines ranging from about $300,000 to $500,000 to nine immigrants who failed to leave the country after being ordered deported, but the agency has since rescinded all but one of them, an agency spokesperson told Vox in a statement Wednesday.

Imposing such hefty fines on unauthorized immigrants is a new practice under the Trump administration, but the law allowing ICE to do so has been on the books since 1996. A provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act permits the government to impose civil fines on immigrants who agree to leave the US voluntarily but fail to do so, or who have final unfulfilled deportation orders, according to an agency spokesperson.

Jeremy McKinney, an immigration lawyer representing one of the immigrants who had been fined, said that previous administrations had never attempted to enforce that provision — and with good reason.

“None of us, myself and anyone in the immigration bar, had ever seen any attempt to assess this particular fine against anyone,” he said. “By targeting people who had specifically taken refuge in religious institutions, it looks like a form of invidious selective enforcement.”

President Donald Trump, however, directed ICE to start collecting the fines in an executive order penned shortly after he took office in 2017 — just one of many ways the administration has sought to target immigrants living in sanctuary and step up immigration enforcement in the interior of the US.

The fine for failing to voluntarily leave under Department of Homeland Security regulations is $3,000 unless an immigration judge rules otherwise, and immigrants can be charged up to an additional $799 for every additional day they stay in the US under the INA. ICE gives immigrants 30 days to appeal the fines once issued, and the agency can then reassess them on a case-by-case basis.

One of the affected immigrants, Edith Espinal Moreno, had been living in an Ohio church for two years before she received a letter from ICE last week saying that the agency had rescinded her $497,000 fine, as first reported by NPR.

Rosa Ortiz Cruz, who was facing fines of over $300,000 and has been living in sanctuary in a North Carolina church for 19 months, also received notice on Tuesday that the agency had decided to rescind her fines, McKinney, her lawyer, said.

“Following consideration of matters you forwarded for ICE review, and in the exercise of its discretion under applicable regulations, ICE hereby withdraws the Notice of Intention to Fine,” the letter reads.

McKinney said he had been ready to take the agency to court if it didn’t drop the fines. In Ortiz Cruz’s case, he said the fines were particularly egregious in light of the fact that her immigration case is still ongoing, and an immigration judge never told her that she could face fines as a result of failing to comply with her deportation order, as is required by law. The US Constitution, he added, also prohibits excessive fining.

“ICE chose to do the right thing,” he said.

Even though ICE is no longer imposing fines on Ortiz Cruz, she could still be deported, so until her immigration case is decided, she will be remaining in sanctuary.

Richard Rocha, an ICE spokesperson, confirmed as much on Wednesday, saying that the agency hasn’t stopped trying to deport immigrants with unfulfilled removal orders — nor will it stop issuing fines to other immigrants.

“These individuals are subject to final orders of removal and they remain in the United States in violation of law,” he said. “ICE will pursue enforcement of these removal orders using any and all available means, and has reserved the right to reassess fines in these cases.”

The fines are one aspect of ramped-up immigration enforcement over the last few years. The Trump administration carried out some of the largest-ever immigration raids in recent months, arresting 680 workers at two Mississippi poultry plants in August.

ICE has also stepped up courthouse arrests of unauthorized immigrants, despite the efforts of advocates to add courthouses to a list of “sensitive locations” where the agency cannot target immigrants and the fact that federal judges have prohibited the practice in some areas of the country.

The administration has also tried to undermine states and cities that offer sanctuary to unauthorized immigrants, trying to withhold federal law enforcement grants from them and even trying (and mostly failing) to vacate California’s sanctuary laws.