What will become of sanctuary beneficiaries in Biden era?

The notice from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about paying a $ 59,126 fine did not bolster Hilda Ramírez’s confidence that she would soon be able to leave the church where she and her son had been sheltered for nearly five years. “I don’t have a penny to pay for it,” Ramírez said. “Why are they doing this?”.

Ramírez, 32, a native of Guatemala, is among dozens of immigrants facing deportation who have found refuge in recent years in places of worship across the United States.

She is also one of a handful of high-profile sanctuary recipients, all destitute while legally prohibited from working in the country, and fined tens of thousands of dollars by the Trump administration for ignoring deportation orders.

A woman and boy hold hands as they walk in from outside.

Hilda and Iván Ramírez are shown in San Andrés four years ago, when the boy was 10 years old. They take refuge in the church since 2016.

(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Now, these immigration activists and advocates, along with Congressional Democrats, are calling on President Biden to waive the fines (which, in Ramírez’s case, were dated December 2020, although he did not receive official notice until later. of the current president taking office) and suppress all deportation orders against immigrants in the sanctuary of the church. They have sought the protection of the religious center because US immigration policy has long outlawed enforcement in places of worship.

“Those in the sanctuary have already suffered enough,” read a Jan. 26 letter to Biden from more than two dozen representatives and senators. “The actions of your administration can bring them the relief they need and deserve.”

A federal lawsuit, filed a day before the president took office last month, demands that Washington cancel the fines of approximately $ 60,000 each, imposed against Ramirez in Austin, and the women housed in churches in Salt Lake City; Columbus, Ohio; and Charlottesville, Va. The lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls the fines excessive and retaliation for the public defense of women on behalf of the sanctuary. It also alleges violations of the constitutional rights to freedom of expression, association and religious practice.

A boy kicks a ball.

Iván Ramírez, who played outside of San Andrés when he was 10 years old, is now 14 and attends high school in Austin.

(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

“The intent of the fines was never really to raise money, it was to intimidate women who had taken refuge and protested,” said Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law. . “ICE was saying, ‘We may not break down the church doors, but we will do something to prevent you from having a normal life in this country.’

The Justice Department has yet to respond to the lawsuit. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

The Biden administration is in the process of reviewing dozens of Trump-era immigration policies that critics have called draconian. The current president has also pledged to promote legislation that provides a path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants who authorities estimate are living in the country illegally.

The population of sanctuary beneficiaries is limited: about 40 to 60 families in the United States, some with children who are US citizens or legal residents, according to estimates by advocacy groups and Congress.

But the sanctuaries movement, which began in the 1980s as a kind of modern subway railroad, in which churches offered refuge to Central Americans fleeing the conflicts of the Cold War era, still resonates deeply. Religious leaders revived the sanctuary in the 2000s, when immigration enforcement intensified, including during the Obama administration, when formal deportations increased. (Immigrant advocates are hopeful that Biden is not as aggressive with law enforcement as his former boss.) Behind the concept are biblical principles for welcoming the stranger.

“This is critical to what we do,” said the Rev. Jim Rigby, longtime pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, where Ramirez and his son have resided since 2016, before Trump took office. . “The foreigner is not mistreated. I hope that we can finally return to the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty ”.

Ramírez, a short woman who speaks Spanish with traces of the Mam language, which is her first language, indicated that she fled Guatemala with her son in 2014, escaping domestic abuse and what she calls discrimination against indigenous people of Mayan descent. . Following a very shabby road, he crossed Mexico by land and headed to Rio Grande, where he said he crossed into Texas in 2014 and surrendered to the Border Patrol, requesting political asylum.

In an interview last year with the Univision network in Spanish, his son, Iván, recalled his thoughts at that time, when he was 8 years old.

“It was an adventure for me,” said Iván. “My mother told me that we were going to a better, beautiful place. I imagined a house with butterflies ”.

Instead, he and his mother were held for 11 months at a private immigration facility in South Texas. Conditions, he noted, were miserable.

“The place looks nice from the outside, but inside it was horrible,” Ramírez recalled during an interview at the Austin church. “My son got sick from eating rotten food. He had a fever and was vomiting. I was afraid that he was going to die.

She and other detained women went on a hunger strike that made headlines. She attributes the action and the resulting publicity to pressuring the authorities to release her in 2015. She was equipped with an ankle monitor to track her whereabouts as her asylum case worked its way through the system.

Initially, Ramírez stayed at a hostel in Austin, the state capital, and a liberal stronghold in Texas. But she and her son were not protected from eventual arrest there. The activists helped the two move to St. Andrew’s.

“Hilda and her son were bright lights,” recalled Peggy Morton, who runs the Austin Sanctuary Network and met the mother, as well as the son, while in detention. “I was very impressed with her and heartbroken by her situation.”

A woman stands at a kitchen counter, making a meal.

Hilda Ramírez, photographed in 2017, uses the kitchen at St. Andrew’s. Help out in church, fighting occasional bouts of depression.

(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

In the last year of the Obama administration, lawyers representing Ramírez were able to obtain a temporary stay on the deportation order, issued after his asylum application was rejected. The stay allowed him to leave the church grounds and travel with advocates to Washington, DC, to press his case and that of other sanctuary beneficiaries. He also visited an older sister who had settled in Oklahoma with her three children.

However, the Trump administration did not extend her clemency and she was again forced to remain on the church premises to avoid arrest and deportation. Other sanctuary beneficiaries across the country also lost temporary stays against deportation. By then, Ramírez had become one of the public faces of a revived national shrine movement.

General sanctuary policies, with their biblical provenance, were an especially irritating concept to Trump. He frequently criticized so-called sanctuary cities, jurisdictions across the country that have restricted cooperation with federal immigration authorities. His administration sought, mostly without success, to deny federal funding to pro-sanctuary cities and towns in California and elsewhere. At one point, Trump even reflected on Twitter about the mass sending of illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities.

Behind the rhetorical bombast, activists allege, there was an official campaign of surveillance and retaliation targeting high-profile beneficiaries of sanctuaries, including Ramírez.

In the summer of 2019, ICE imposed fines of up to $ 500,000 against her and other sanctuary beneficiaries for failing to comply with deportation orders. The Trump administration resorted to a little-used legal provision that imposed financial penalties for each day someone refused to comply with orders to leave the country. Subsequently, ICE reduced the levies to about $ 60,000 per person.

“At first I thought it was some kind of joke,” Ramírez said of the fines. “Then I realized that they were going after all of us who spoke out against injustice.”

Earlier this month, she received a “bill” from the Department of Homeland Security dating from the final weeks of the Trump administration; she owed $ 59,126 in civil penalties. Payment is due on March 3.

Hilda Ramirez and her son, Ivan, walk past the their living area at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church.

Hilda Ramírez, who appears with Iván in 2017, became the public face of the sanctuary movement nationwide. Former President Trump lashed out at so-called sanctuary cities.

(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Ramírez spends her days caring for her son, helping out in church and sewing small dolls and masks embroidered with traditional indigenous figures. Fight occasional bouts of depression. Raised as an evangelical Christian, she says she has embraced the Presbyterian faith community at St. Andrew’s. The pandemic has resulted in the suspension of Sunday services and other activities that once animated the church. Visits from advocates and others help alleviate loneliness.

“It’s very difficult, very stressful,” Ramírez said. “There are times when I would just like to run away from here, when I think of abandoning everything. But then I think of my son. I want him to have a better life. “

The school bus stops outside the church on weekdays to pick up Ivan, a lively seventh grader who turns 15 in April. A tutor visits the church to help with his lessons. The young man is on his way to obtaining a special visa to stay in the United States, advocates say. But mother and son cannot think of being apart. The specter of separation haunts them and is always present.

Iván has posted videos online documenting his family’s plight, their struggle to achieve legal status and stay together. Recently, Iván accompanied activists to a protest in front of ICE headquarters in San Antonio.

“When my classmates at school are worried about doing their homework,” he told reporters, “I worry if my mother will still be there when she comes back from school.”

To read this note in Spanish, click here