Immigrant rights groups don’t want the Trump administration to continue targeting sanctuary activists—all of whom are women—with excessive, six-figure fines. Austin Sanctuary Network (ASN), Free Migration Project (FMP), Grassroots Leadership and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a lawsuit on February 26 against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), the U.S. Department of the Treasury (DOT), and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in the Southern District of New York, according to a group emailed statement from the organizations.  

Advocates are demanding access to documents outlining how and why the government is imposing outrageous fees on activists, especially because they appear to be retaliatory in nature, says the emailed statement. “The need for this information is extremely urgent, as massive fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars have been levied against several women in sanctuary who have spoken out against these fines and U.S. immigration policy,” CCR said in another statement posted in their web site. 

The statement explains further:

In the summer of 2019, a number of high-profile activists in sanctuary—all women who fled persecution in their countries of origin—were notified of ICE’s intent to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from each of them. These notices were abruptly withdrawn, only to be re-issued several months later. The FOIA sought documents concerning this unprecedented spate of civil fines against people who have chosen to take sanctuary while pursuing their legal remedies to remain in the U.S.

Guatemalan asylum-seeker Hilda Ramirez, an activist and leader of ASN, has been living in sanctuary in an Austin, Texas, church since 2016, according to the statement emailed from advocacy groups. She received an “intent to fine” notice from ICE for over $300,000 in 2019. “It is so painful to have to continue to endure attacks from ICE when all I want is to be free,” Ramirez said as part of the emailed statement. “These fines couldn’t have been anything other than retaliation for the love and support that I have received from my community here in Austin, TX.” 

Edith Espinal Moreno, an immigration activist seeking asylum in Ohio, also received notice from ICE in 2019. ”It was surprising and upsetting when I received the letter from ICE threatening to fine me. I know they are trying to scare me and other people in sanctuary, but I won’t give up,” Moreno said in the statement. “My faith in God and the support of the community gives me strength to do everything I can to keep my family together.” 

Interim Executive Co-Director of Grassroots Leadership, Claudia Muñoz, stressed how crucial it is for the agencies named in Wednesday’s lawsuit to be as transparent as possible. “ICE continues to act in a way that makes them seem as though they are not accountable. But as government employees they are in fact accountable, not only to elected officials, but to the public and the courts as well,” she said in the emailed statement. “ICE has made troubling decisions by targeting people for political reasons, and we have every reason to believe the decision to impose costly fines against sanctuary leaders is no different. If they have nothing to hide, they should release any and all communication they had regarding the fines.”

So far, ICE, DOT and EOIR have failed to produce any paperwork for the requestors, who filed their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in September 2019. Daniel Lee of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic points to constitutional concerns with the government’s tactics in this case. “These actions by the U.S. government, and their subsequent lack of transparency, raise serious constitutional concerns about government retaliation for freedom of speech and the imposition of excessive and punitive fines,” Lee said in the emailed statement. “They are part and parcel of the Trump administration’s attempts to punish sanctuary leaders and sanctuary jurisdictions,” added Lauren Wilfong, also of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.

“Behind closed doors, ICE officials have admitted they are targeting me for political reasons, but then they deny it publicly,” Ramirez said. “It is time that ICE tells us exactly why they are targeting me and other women who are in sanctuary.”