ICE has issued fines over the past year to about 230 illegal immigrants who have defied judges’ deportation orders to remain in the country, tapping a tool that has been on the books for decades but had been largely ignored until now.
The agency said it also has taken the first steps to revive massive fines — some as large as a half-million dollars — against a group of high-profile illegal immigrants who have taken sanctuary in churches across the country to resist their deportations.
Warning letters went out to seven migrants last week. They amounted to a do-over for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which during the summer issued notices of fines to nine migrants and had to revoke eight of them in October after the agency realized it had skipped a step.
“ICE wants to make it clear that we’re employing every tool we have to urge compliance with judges’ orders. The use of fines will be seen more in the future,” Henry Lucero, ICE’s deputy chief of Enforcement and Removal Operations, told The Washington Times.
Under the law, illegal immigrants defying a deportation order can be fined $500 a day — now $799 when adjusted for inflation — for every day they remain in the country beyond the date they were ordered to be out of the country.
Fine notices began going out late last year, and about 230 notices of intent have been issued so far.
Mr. Lucero said there is no systematic screen to decide who will face fines.
Deportation officers at the local level make the decisions on a case-by-case basis after determining whether fines are necessary for compliance.
He said it’s too early to judge how effective the fine notices have been but said at least some of them have been collected on. Others who were fined have checked in with ICE and worked out departure plans or have left the country on their own.
Those who ignore the fines can have money garnished.
Most of the 230 cases of fines have flown under the radar, but nine received attention over the summer after notices went to migrants living in sanctuary at churches — many of them with families in the U.S.
Targets were people such as Edith Espinal, who has been living in sanctuary at Columbus Menonite Church in Columbus, Ohio, for more than two years. Over the summer, she got a notice of a fine of $497,777. Vicky Chavez-Fino, in sanctuary at a Salt Lake City church, got a notice of a fine of about $470,000.
ICE revoked most of the notices in October, saying it realized it hadn’t given an initial warning but might renew the fines.
Sending warning notices last week was the first step toward reviving the penalties.
The Rev. Noel Andersen, who oversees the sanctuary movement for the Church World Service, called the fines “yet another inhumane and unjust attempt by ICE to instill fear in the undocumented people who are standing up with courage to tell their stories and challenge the administration’s separation of families.”
“It is also clearly a way for ICE to retaliate against the faith communities who are fighting to keep their families together,” he added.
He said Congress should pull funding from ICE.
Mr. Lucero said the fines aren’t about fear.
“This is not an intimidation tactic,” he said. “This is a law. Our country’s immigration laws are not simply suggestions.”
If the immigrants follow the warnings and check in with ICE, he said, they can avoid the fines. ICE will then work with them on an orderly departure.
Mr. Lucero said potential targets for fines are vast.
“It’s really the entire universe of someone that has a final order issued by an immigration judge,” he said.
Of eight migrants targeted over the summer with notices, one self-departed last week, ICE said, so only seven notices went out.
A ninth migrant got a notice over the summer. The notice wasn’t revoked in October because that person had been warned in a judge’s order. It’s not clear where that case stands.
Once ICE issues a fine, an appeals process can begin.
Attorneys for several of the sanctuary migrants didn’t return messages seeking comment over the weekend.