As border crisis deepens, Trump administration targets undocumented immigrants living in churches

The administration is fining undocumented immigrants hundreds of thousands of dollars for not self-deporting.

A volunteer prepares for bed with a group of recent migrants in the church hall of the Basilica of San Albino in, Mesilla, New Mexico on January 2, 2019. CREDIT: Paul Ratje / AFP
A volunteer prepares for bed with a group of recent migrants in the church hall of the Basilica of San Albino in, Mesilla, New Mexico on January 2, 2019. CREDIT: Paul Ratje / AFP

As the crisis on the nation’s southwest border deepens, the Trump administration is sending letters ordering some undocumented immigrants living in the United States — including several seeking sanctuary in places of worship — to pay fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars for not self-deporting after being ordered to do so.

“[I]t is the intention of ICE to order you to pay a fine in the amount of $497,777,” said one such letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was obtained by NPR.

It’s not clear how many of the letters have gone out, but around 12 of the 44 undocumented immigrants across the country who have sheltered in “sanctuary churches” to avoid deportation received them this week, according to The New York Times and Religion News Service.

ICE treats churches, schools, and hospitals as “sensitive locations” with greater protection from immigration enforcement actions like raids, and churches have been offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers since at least the 1980s.


Many in the so-called “church sanctuary movement” see it as a moral obligation — a way of answering Jesus’ command in the Gospels to care for the stranger. But ICE’s hands-off approach to places of worship is policy, not law, and some church organizers fear that it could change under the Trump administration’s hardline approach to immigration enforcement.

The fine letters that went out this week have added fuel to those concerns.

“I am a bit concerned that ICE might be setting the stage to rescind sensitive-location policies,” the Rev. Randall Keeney of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, in Greensboro, North Carolina, told Religion News Service.

The letters make good on an executive order Trump signed days after his inauguration, which ordered the homeland security secretary to “ensure the assessment and collection of all fines and penalties … from aliens unlawfully present in the United States and from those who facilitate their presence in the United States.”

They cite the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows ICE to impose civil fines on undocumented immigrants who fail to leave the country after being ordered to do so. Undocumented immigrants receive a “Notice of Intention to Fine” and have 30 days to respond before fines are imposed, according to NPR.


“ICE is committed to using various enforcement methods — including arrest, detention, technological monitoring and financial penalties — to enforce U.S. immigration law and maintain the integrity of legal orders issued by judges,” ICE spokespeople told several media outlets in a statement.

The letters came the same week President Donald Trump promised to target thousands of immigrants in sweeping raids across the country unless Congress tightens U.S. asylum laws, a move he delayed last last month.

“After July 4, a lot of people are going to be brought back out,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday as he signed a $4.6 billion border funding bill.

Meanwhile, conditions on the nation’s southwest border boiled over this week, after the Associated Press revealed squalid conditions at a shelter for migrant children near El Paso, Texas; a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found that Customs and Border Protection is holding immigrants in cells that are nearly double their capacity, and that children at some CBP facilities lack access to showers and laundry; and ProPublica revealed a secret Facebook group for Border Patrol agents that included sexist memes about members of Congress and jokes about migrant children dying in CBP custody.

The inspector general’s report made clear what Trump has said time and again — that the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions at southwest border facilities are meant to deter people from trying to enter the U.S. in the first place.

“If Illegal Immigrants [sic] are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “All problems solved!”


That policy of deterrence means conditions could get much worse before they get better. With the House and Senate split and Trump promising to continue his hardline policies, a political solution to the crisis is nowhere in sight.

Meanwhile, activists in the church sanctuary movement say they won’t back down. Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said his congregation will continue sheltering undocumented immigrants who they say would be at risk if they returned to their home countries.

“We understood from the beginning that the federal government does not approve of us taking care of our people,” Villegas told Religion News Service. “We’re on different sides of history on that matter. We know they’ll do whatever they can to intimidate us.”