AUSTIN, Texas -- Two months after Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped its intention to fine an Austin-based asylum seeker more than $300,000, ICE this month sent her a new warning letter: If she fails to leave the country per her order of removal, she may face renewed fines and imprisonment.
Hilda RamIrez, who lives with her son in St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in North Austin, is among at least seven women living in churches across the country who received a "notice of consequences for failing to depart" letter.
RamIrez has been offered sanctuary at the church twice since 2016. In March, her request for extended deferred action to temporarily stay in the country was denied by ICE. Fearing deportation to Guatemala, where she said her safety is in danger, RamIrez decided to remain in sanctuary.
"The letter was clearly intended to frighten and intimidate this brave woman who fled violence in her native land, but instead of being treated as an asylum seeker, or even as a human being, she has been hounded at every turn by policies that can only be called racist and anti-immigrant," said Jim Rigby, longtime minister at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. "If anything, this letter reinforces our commitment to obey the biblical command to open our doors to those who seek sanctuary from oppression, even if that oppression comes from our own government."
Six months ago, RamIrez received a letter informing her of ICE's intention to fine her. A similar letter was sent to several other female asylum seekers living in churches across the country. According to its notice, ICE said the fines can go up to $799 for each day in the country illegally. RamIrez's fine totaled $303,620.
ICE rescinded the fines in October without citing a specific reason for the withdrawal.
According to an interview last week with The Washington Times, Henry Lucero, ICE's deputy chief of enforcement and removal operations, said the agency revoked most of those notices after it realized that the immigrants had not received an initial warning. He said more than 200 of those letters were sent over the past year.
Lucero told the newspaper the fines were not intimidation tactics. "This is a law," he said. "Our country's immigration laws are not simply suggestions."
RamIrez's case was among those that received national attention as sanctuary advocates banded together for collective legal support and called fines "retaliation" for the women seeking refuge at churches.
Attorney Lizbeth Mateo, whose client Edith Espinal has been living in an Ohio church and received the same warning letter this month, said she's concerned about what the new notices could mean for the safety of these women living in churches.