PRESS ADVISORY Bracing for Election Results, Immigrant Leaders Living in Sanctuary Churches Ask Joe Biden to Commit to Free Them If Elected

Colectivo Santuario logo


Press contact

Bracing for Election Results, Immigrant Leaders Living in Sanctuary Churches Ask Joe Biden to Commit to Free Them If Elected

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The National Sanctuary Collective (Colectivo Santuario) is holding a press conference today to ask former Vice President Joe Biden to commit to free community leaders living in sanctuary churches if he is elected. The Sanctuary leaders will deliver to the Biden campaign a petition and letters of support from organizations and elected officials around the country. The National Sanctuary Collective is made up of immigrants living in Sanctuary churches, organizers, attorneys, and allies in faith communities across the country.

WHAT: Virtual Press Conference to Deliver Petition & Demands to Joe Biden
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, at 12:00 p.m. Central Time
WHERE: Zoom virtual event, broadcast on Facebook Live
WHO: National Sanctuary Collective – Colectivo Santuario
RSVP: for a Zoom link

Vicky Chavez, who has been living in Sanctuary at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City since 2018, said, “Today I am sending you this letter of support to ask candidate Joe Biden: Do you commit to supporting us? If you are elected, do you promise not to forget us? Do you commit to freeing us? To be able to live with our families without fear of deportation.”

Sanctuary leaders are looking for bold moral leadership from politicians during this time of uncertainty and terror perpetuated by ICE. The Sanctuary leaders demand that Joe Biden commit to take the three following actions if he is elected:

  1. On his first day in office, exercise favorable prosecutorial discretion to grant a stay of removal to each person living in sanctuary;
  2. Lift the deportation orders against Sanctuary leaders within the first 100 days in office by using legal tools at the government’s disposal; and
  3. Sign into law all private bills on behalf of people living in sanctuary that Congress sends to his desk.

More than 5,000 people have signed a petition asking Joe Biden to commit to take these three actions to liberate Sanctuary leaders if elected. Forty-three (43) elected officials, convention delegates, and candidates for office signed a letter echoing these demands. Almost 140 nonprofits, churches, and other organizations signed another identical letter.

The Sanctuary leaders also collaborated to create a short video asking for Vice President Biden’s support.

Maria Chavalán Sut, currently living in Sanctuary at the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, added, “I have been locked up two years in the church. I have gone four years without being able to hug my children with a mother’s love. I dream of the day when I can hug my children again. Mr. Biden, help me be able to have my children with me again. I want to hug them and have them in my protection. My children are my greatest treasure as a mother.”

This press conference follows on the release last week of documents produced by ICE under federal court order showing that the agency levied civil fines totalling over $3 million in retaliation against a small number of Sanctuary leaders who had spoken out in defense of immigrant communities. Documents produced in a separate lawsuit confirmed that influential Trump advisor Stephen Miller was directly involved in developing the civil fines program to pay for the border wall.


The National Sanctuary Collective – Colectivo Santuario is comprised of immigrants living in sanctuary in houses of worship, immigrant organizers, attorneys, and allies in faith communities around the country. Austin Sanctuary Network works with the National Sanctuary Collective

PRESS ADVISORY: Sanctuary Leaders Release Documents Showing ICE’s Plan to Roll Out Massive Civil Fines Against Undocumented Immigrants

Press contacts:

PRESS ADVISORY: Sanctuary Leaders Release Documents Showing ICE’s Plan to Roll Out Massive Civil Fines Against Undocumented Immigrants

ICE Documents Obtained Under Freedom of Information Act Show Surveillance and Targeting of Sanctuary Leaders

October 22, 2020, New York – Today, immigrant rights groups released documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit showing high-ranking Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials’ plans to roll out massive civil fines against undocumented immigrants. The documents also show ICE using the fines to retaliate against sanctuary movement leaders who had been outspoken about immigrant rights. Nine people taking sanctuary in churches across the U.S., unable to leave their houses of worship for fear of deportation, were targeted. Each leader received a fine of up to $500,000 from ICE.

“When I first entered the U.S. seeking refuge, immigration put me and my son in an ice-cold cell without any blankets, in unsanitary conditions, in the middle of the night. Next, ICE took us to a family detention center, and we survived that and eventually made our way to a church asking for help,” said Guatemalan Hilda Ramirez, who has taken sanctuary with her son in Austin, Texas, since February 2016. “Now we learn ICE was surveilling us to punish me with fines for speaking against the injustices. Finally, it’s coming to light.”

The documents released today detail a policy that was years in the making. The groups also released a briefing guide, providing details and context for each document.

Soon after Donald Trump took office, high-ranking ICE officials – including at least one who is closely connected to the extremist architect of Trump’s immigration policies, Stephen Miller – formed a working group dedicated to using civil fines against immigrants in sanctuary. The group identified a previously unused section of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) under which ICE may issue fines of hundreds of dollars per day. In June 2018, ICE created a secret policy memo setting out rules for implementing the civil fines statute and, in 2019, targeted sanctuary leaders with egregious civil fines. By July 2019, the leaders had received fines as high as $500,000 each; all told, the fines surpassed $3 million.

“I am an Indigenous woman. Under a system which denies my fundamental rights, I am a survivor. I remind ICE that they are on stolen, invaded, Indigenous land. I do not owe ICE anything – they are the ones who owe reparations for their injustices,” said María Chavalan Sut, who has lived in sanctuary in Charlottesville, Virginia since October, 2018.

“ICE’s retaliatory attempt to issue fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars against immigrant community leaders living in sanctuary churches violated their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” said David Bennion of Free Migration Project, who is the attorney of one of the targeted sanctuary leaders. “What remains to be seen is whether a potential Biden administration would allow ICE to continue this campaign to silence and punish critics of the Trump administration’s policies.”

Attorneys question the constitutionality of the INA civil fines statute, as well as whether ICE’s implementation was consistent with the statute itself. Invoking these legal issues, a group of the targeted leaders and immigrant rights organizations mobilized in opposition to the fines, and ICE rescinded them in October 2019. However, in February 2020, ICE reissued notices of intent to fine the sanctuary leaders at a lower amount. The targeted sanctuary leaders filed a second legal response opposing the fines, and the matter remains pending. Activists emphasize that the fines constitute retaliation against the sanctuary leaders for their public advocacy and effective leadership of the sanctuary movement.

The documents released today were obtained through a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), the U.S. Department of the Treasury , and the Executive Office for Immigration Review filed in February after the three agencies failed to produce virtually any documents in response to a September 2019 FOIA request.

“These documents show how ICE targeted sanctuary leaders who were outspoken about their cases as a way to intimidate immigrants across the country,” said Katie Matejcak of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. “ICE’s message to immigrant rights activists is clear: keep quiet or we will try to find a way to silence you,” added Elena Hodges, also of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.

Austin Sanctuary Network Chair Peggy Morton said, “Sanctuary is an act of nonviolent civil disobedience designed to redefine our relationship to each other in community. As people of faith and no faith we’ve stood behind our values in sheltering sanctuary leaders. Now, it’s time for everyone to join our neighbors in need to dismantle our chains.”

Ian Head, coordinator of the Center for Constitutional Rights Open Records Project said, “While it shouldn’t have taken a court order to obtain these records, they show the continued, vital importance of the Freedom of Information Act as a conduit for government transparency, especially when it comes to agencies such as ICE.”

Read the documents released today and the accompanying briefing guide here. For more information on the case, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.

For more information about the organizations involved, please visit: