Hilda and Alirio Walk Out of Sanctuary into Freedom for One Year

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After relentless pressure on members of Congress, DHS Director Mayorkas and President Biden, Hilda Ramirez and Alirio Gamez have won one-year Stays of Removal, gaining a long-awaited reprieve from the threat of deportation

For immediate release: Wednesday, April 14, 2021

What: Virtual Press Conference
When: Wednesday, April 14, 2021 at 10:30 a.m. CST
Who: Hilda Ramirez and Alirio Gamez will share their news and stories about fighting for their freedom. Both Senior Minister Meg Barnhouse with First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin and Pastor Jim Rigby with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Austin will speak about their faithful call for justice with our neighbors.


(AUSTIN, Texas) – After years of fighting for their freedom from the confinement of sanctuary, Hilda Ramirez and Alirio Gamez have been granted a Stay of Removal. This victory speaks to the resilience and perseverance of Hilda, her son Ivan, Alirio and the community supporting them. This stay comes in a time that Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Texas and Republicans continue to attack the immigrant communities, but with the help of congressional representatives and people of faith the sanctuary leaders were able to win a victory and stop their deportations.

Both Sanctuary leaders spent the majority of the Trump administration in Austin congregations campaigning for their freedom. Alirio Gamez at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin and Hilda Ramirez at the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Austin. The Rev. Meg Barnhouse at the UU church states “Our values hold that none of us is completely free until all of us are free. To watch Alrio walk free is a joy and a delight for all of us. He has been a beloved presence in our congregation yet we are very happy to see him be able to leave.”

When finding out the news Alirio said, “I feel a great sense of relief that they have given us a stay for a year but we don’t just want a stay for a year, we want to continue to fight for something more permanent. We will continue to work with representatives who have filled private bills for us.”

“We, the community of Saint Andrews Presbyterian are so relieved and grateful to hear that Hilda and Alirio will be safe from deportation for the next 12 months,” said the Rev. Jim Rigby from St. Andrew’s Presbytarian church. “It is our prayer this temporary measure will be the first step toward actual freedom and justice for Alirio, Hilda and her son Iván, who have endured the nightmare of persecution. At last they will realize the dream that brought them to America in the first place — their dream of freedom and justice.”

Hilda Ramirez, who got the call from her attorney Monday morning, said, “This was a bittersweet decision for my son and I. Ivan still has a deportation order even though he qualifies for a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa but immigration says they will not remove the order unless the administration tells them too. I’m happy that I can go and see my son play soccer and take him to the park but I know that the fight for us continues. I have fought many years to keep us together and I will keep fighting to make sure our family is not separated.”

Carmen Zuvieta, the lead organizer for their campaign said, “These stays were won by hard work from our volunteers who followed the leadership of Hilda and Alirio. We continued to pressure congressional representatives who promised to give a better option for the immigrant community. We called on them after local ICE officers denied their Stays after President Biden took office, and they helped us win a victory for our brave sanctuary leaders.”

Castro, Markey and Colleagues Urge President Biden to Protect Immigrants in Sanctuary Churches

Joaquin Castro Congressman for the 20th District of Texas

For immediate release:
January 26th, 2020

Alex Sarabia – alex.sarabia@mail.house.gov – 202-760-0802

WASHINGTON — Today, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas and Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren and over two-dozen House members, sent a letter to President Biden urging swift action to grant relief and protections to immigrant families living in sanctuary churches across the nation. For decades, immigrants have been sheltered and supported by communities of faith as a last resort to avoid deportation. Federal immigration enforcement has a longstanding policy against carrying out arrests in houses of worship. The number of immigrant families living in sanctuary in a house of worship increased dramatically under the Trump administration, and today at least 40 immigrant families currently living in sanctuary churches across the United States. This letter asks President Biden to use the power of the presidency to defend these most vulnerable of immigrants, including by granting stays of removal, lifting deportation orders, and signing private bills of relief for any immigrant family living in sanctuary.

“Across our nation, communities of faith have hosted immigrant families in houses of worship to protect them from deportation and prevent family separations,” said Representative Castro. “With the Biden-Harris administration, these vulnerable families now have a real opportunity for relief and may be able to leave the walls of their sanctuaries for the first time in years. We respectfully urge President Biden to show compassion and mercy to these families, and honor both America’s tradition as a nation of immigrants as well as the advocacy of faith communities.”

“Our houses of worship must also be houses of hope for everyone who finds refuge in them. I am proud to stand in solidarity with the five individuals in Massachusetts, and nearly 40 across our country, who are currently seeking refuge in sanctuary churches. It is long past time to provide dignified and lasting protections to these individuals and families,” said Senator Markey. “I am hopeful that President Biden will help safely open the doors of our sanctuary churches and open the pathway to citizenship for these brave individuals.”

Additional co-signers include: Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representatives James P. McGovern, Joyce Beatty, Barbara Lee, Veronica Escobar, Jan Schakowsky, Ayanna Pressley, Nydia M. Velázquez, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Dwight Evans, Alcee L. Hastings, Lori Trahan, Sheila Jackson Lee, Lloyd Doggett, Sylvia R. Garcia, Mary Gay Scanlon, Mark Pocan, Tony Cárdenas, Albio Sires, Grace F. Napolitano, Ilhan Omar, Raul Grijalva, Debbie Dingell, Joe Neguse, Cori Bush, Ruben Gallego, Brendan F. Boyle, and Rashida Tlaib.

You can read the full letter here and below:

Dear President Biden:

We write to express our support for sanctuary families currently living in houses of worship around the United States. Today there are 40 people living in sanctuary, taking refuge in houses of worship as their only option to be safe from deportation and to keep their families intact. The Obama administration granted many of these people stays of removal, but over the last four years they have been forced into sanctuary as the Trump administration has worked incessantly to deport them or send them to detention centers.

Additionally, throughout the past four years, those in sanctuary have faced targeted retaliation from DHS, including severe fines ranging from $200,000 to almost $500,000; U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) field offices targeting them; and continuous surveillance. We ask you to ensure that your immigration policies are crafted with dignity and respect towards those who live in sanctuary, and that you commit to the following remedial steps:

      1. Directing ICE, by February 12, 2021, to exercise prosecutorial discretion to grant a stay of removal to each person living in sanctuary;
      2. within the first 100 days of your presidency, lifting the deportation orders against all people living in sanctuary; and
      3. signing into law all private bills on behalf of people living in sanctuary that Congress sends to your desk.

Those in sanctuary have suffered enough. Your Administration’s actions can bring them the relief they need and deserve.

Immigrants in sanctuary, along with the faith communities that support them, have been working hard to change our broken immigration system for many years. Those in sanctuary have worked tirelessly with us as Members of Congress, and have sought to meet with your transition team, to highlight the need for immigration reform to include immigrants facing unjust deportation orders. Now is the time to support and honor the brave fight and leadership of people living in sanctuary and their commitment to resist the retaliatory actions of the Trump administration. We look forward to working with you to ensure that immigrants’ rights in the United States are protected.


Press release: Women in Sanctuary File Lawsuit Against ICE to Challenge Retaliatory and Excessive Civil Fines

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Women in Sanctuary File Lawsuit Against ICE to Challenge Retaliatory and Excessive Civil Fines

Joined by Immigrant Rights Groups, Women in Sanctuary Seek to Hold Federal Immigration Officials Accountable Under Religious Freedom Restoration Act, First and Eighth Amendments for Targeting Leaders of Sanctuary Movement

January 19, 2020, New York, NY – Four women living in sanctuary, along with Austin Sanctuary Network (ASN) and Free Migration Project (FMP), filed a lawsuit on Tuesday suing U.S. immigration agencies and officials for targeting sanctuary leaders with retaliatory and excessive civil fines.

Each of the plaintiffs is a leader in the modern sanctuary movement. The sanctuary movement originally began in the 1980s as resistance to government oppression. Today, houses of worship across the country are continuing that tradition and have come together in support of immigrant rights, including by offering sanctuary as an act of solidarity to people who would otherwise be deported.

“As people of faith called to love our neighbors, we’ve embraced immigrants who were fleeing violence, much of it caused by failed U.S. military and economic systems,” Austin Sanctuary Network chair Peggy Morton said. “Consequently, we’ve witnessed abject cruelty from U.S. government officials surveilling houses of worship, retaliating against our friends with huge fines and growing unnecessary trauma among loving and courageous human beings who are not a threat to U.S. security.”

The women are bringing claims against ICE and various officials under the First and Eighth Amendments and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The leaders allege that the government’s discriminatory and retaliatory issuance of these exorbitant civil fines infringes upon their rights of free speech, association, and religion, as well as their right to be free from excessive fines. They also allege that the government has violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The decision to take sanctuary is an act of faith. Each of the individual plaintiffs have spoken out about their decision to take sanctuary as an exercise of their religious faith and work closely with the churches that have offered them sanctuary to expose the injustices of federal immigration policies.

In the summer of 2019, ICE targeted high-profile activists in sanctuary—all of whom fled persecution in their countries of origin—with notices stating its intent to seek up to $500,000 in fines from each of them. These notices were abruptly withdrawn, only to be re-issued several months later in 2020 against several individuals. Today, each woman faces the possibility of fines of approximately $60,000.

Records recently obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation have confirmed that these fines are part of a years-long effort by high-level Trump Administration officials and ICE to target sanctuary leaders. The suit argues that these records prove, along with other evidence, that ICE issued these excessive fines to sanctuary movement leaders to stop them from speaking out and participating in the sanctuary movement.

“Fining us for telling the truth is an unfair way to shut us up. I decided to take sanctuary to protect the lives of my daughters, and arriving at my church without knowing anyone was God’s purpose so that I could continue fighting for justice in my case,” said Vicky Chavez, a plaintiff in the new lawsuit and a targeted sanctuary movement leader residing in Salt Lake City, Utah .

Hilda Ramirez, another plaintiff and sanctuary movement leader residing in Austin, Texas, noted that ICE’s fines were particularly shocking in light of the fact that this very agency is preventing the leaders from working to support themselves financially: “ICE knows that I am living in a church, that I don’t have my own income or a way to make my own money. I am forced to rely on the church to meet my family’s basic needs, since I don’t have permission to work. I am also being followed by ICE and they know that I would never have an amount of money that HUGE. I am scared and anxious, and I feel like I am being extorted.”

ICE’s targeting has negatively impacted the leaders’ emotional, mental, and physical health, as well as that of their families. Edith Espinal, plaintiff and movement leader in sanctuary in Columbus, Ohio, recalls, “When I first learned that the Trump administration was trying to levy a fine against me, I immediately felt a chill down my spine and tears began flowing down my cheek. I was scared and angry because I saw it as an attempt by the government to punish me for trying to protect my family. I have lived constantly worried and in fear of what else the government may do against me or my children. But I have sought refuge in my faith and the love and support of my community.”

Free Migration Project and Austin Sanctuary Network, two organizations working in conjunction with sanctuary movement leaders to support the fight for immigrant rights, have had to divert significant resources from other projects to respond to ICE’s actions.

David Bennion, Executive Director of the Free Migration Project says, “It has been our honor to support sanctuary leaders as they continue to stand up for their families and communities despite ICE’s egregious attempts to silence them. We believe that the practice of sanctuary is a sacred defense of basic human rights and an affirmation of the inherent worth of all people regardless of where they were born.”

Among other forms of relief, the plaintiffs are suing for a permanent injunction restraining ICE from selectively enforcing its civil fines policy, damages, and a formal apology for the harm that ICE’s targeting has caused.

“I am asking that ICE publicly recognize and correct their mistakes,” said María Chavalán Sut, plaintiff and movement leader in sanctuary in Charlottesville, Virginia. “It’s important to remember that this retaliation is falling disproportionately on women, many of whom are indigenous, who have already survived unimaginable violence and persecution. These are sacred lands, and when European colonizers came here 500 years ago, these lands had no borders or exclusion of human beings. ICE should not only rescind the fines but also pay us reparations.”

Rafaela Uribe, Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “The sanctuary leaders and families at the helm of this case have lived in uncertainty and fear for too long. These women have been unlawfully targeted by the Trump administration for organizing together to demand change in our broken immigration system. We hope this case brings them relief and brings attention to the changes needed to our unjust immigration policies that use xenophobic rhetoric to punish immigrant communities.”

“ICE’s civil fines were designed to stop sanctuary leaders from speaking out and are transparently punitive,” said Elena Hodges of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. “Their targeting of sanctuary leaders is just the most recent chapter of U.S. immigration agencies’ long history of retaliation against the sanctuary movement,” added Katie Matejcak, also of the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.

“Despite ICE’s efforts to silence the sanctuary leaders, the leaders have continued to make their voices heard. The sanctuary leaders’ efforts have helped inspire many faith communities and others to become part of the movement for immigrant rights. ICE cannot stop the sanctuary movement, and the sanctuary leaders are taking this action as another step toward accountability and justice,” said Dinesh McCoy, a legal fellow at Just Futures Law.

To learn more about the case and read today’s filing, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.


For more information about the plaintiff organizations, please visit:



Mujeres Inmigrantes en Santuario Presentan Demanda Contra ICE En Oposición a Multas Abusivas Solicitadas en Represalia Contra Ellas

Acompañadas por Grupos de Derechos de Inmigrantes, Mujeres en Santuario Exigen que Oficiales Federales Migratorios Asumen Responsabilidad Por Dirigir estas Multas contra Las Líderes del Movimiento de Santuario

19 enero 2021, New York, N.Y.— Un grupo de mujeres inmigrantes en Santuario, también con Austin Sanctuary Network (ASN), y Free Migration Project (FMP) presentaron una demanda el martes contra agencias migratorias de los Estados Unidos y sus oficiales por dirigir multas excesivas y en represalia contra líderes del movimiento del santuario.

Cada demandante es un líder en el movimiento moderno del santuario. El movimiento del santuario comenzó originalmente en los 1980s y tiene sus raíces en resistencia contra la opresión estatal. Hoy, iglesias a través del país se han unido en la misma tradición para apoyar los derechos de inmigrantes, incluso por medio de ofrecer santuario como acto de solidaridad a personas que de otra manera serían deportados.

“Como gente de fe estamos llamados a amar al prójimo. Hemos recibido con los brazos abiertos a inmigrantes que están huyendo violencia, violencia que en muchos instantes ha sido causada por las fuerzas armadas de los Estados Unidos y nuestro sistema económico,” dice Peggy Morton líder de el Austin Sanctuary Network. “Por siguiente hemos sidos testigos a la horrible crueldad de oficiales estadounidenses que han participado en la vigilancia de nuestras iglesias, represalia contra nuestras amigas con multas grandísimas, y han contribuido a la creación de trauma innecesariamente en seres humanos que son increíblemente valientes y están llenos de amor y que no demuestran ninguna amenaza a la seguridad de los Estados Unidos.”

El grupo de líderes presentan su demanda contra ICE y varios oficiales bajo el Primer y Octavo Enmienda y la Ley de Restauración de la Libertad Religiosa [Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)]. Las líderes alegan que la manera discriminatoria y vengativa en la cual el gobierno promulgó estas multas infringe en sus derechos de libertad de expresión, asociación, religión, y sus derechos de estar libre de multas excesivas. También alegan que el gobierno ha violado la Ley de Restauración de la Libertad Religiosa. La decisión de tomar santuario es un acto de fe. Todas las demandantes han expresado públicamente su decisión de buscar santuario como un ejercicio de sus creencias religiosas y están trabajando de cerca con las iglesias que le han ofrecido santuario para desenmascarar las injusticias del sistema inmigratorio.

En el verano del 2019, ICE enfocó sus esfuerzos contra las líderes en santuario que tienen gran visibilidad pública—cada cual había huido de su país de origen por persecución—con avisos declarando su intención de exigir hasta $500,000 en multas. Estos avisos fueron abruptamente retirados, solo para ser renovados meses después en el 2020 contra varias individuales. Hoy, cada mujer enfrenta multas de aproximadamente $60,000.

Documentos recientemente recibidos por una demanda hecha por la Ley de Libertad De Información [Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)] han demostrado que estas multas son parte de un esfuerzo coordinado por muchos años por oficiales de la administración del presidente Trump y ICE para perseguir y acosar las líderes en el movimiento santuario. La demanda argumenta que estos documentos junto con otra evidencia muestra que ICE decidió ponerle estas multas excesivas en represalia por su activismo e intimidarlas para que no continúen su participación en el movimiento de santuario. “Ponernos esas multas por decir la verdad es injusto y una manera de callarnos. Yo decidí buscar santuario para proteger las vidas de mis hijas. Llegar a la iglesia sin conocer a nadie fue la voluntad de Dios para que yo pudiera continuar peleando para justicia en mi caso,” dice Vicky Chávez, una demandante en la nueva demanda y una de las líderes perseguidas que vive en Salt Lake City, Utah.

Hilda Ramírez, también una demandante y líder en el movimiento en Austin, Texas, notó que las multas de ICE fueron particularmente chocantes considerando que es ICE la misma agencia que impide que las líderes trabajen y puedan mantenerse. “ICE sabe que vivo en una iglesia, y que no tengo manera de ganar mi propio ingreso u otra manera de ganar mi propio dinero. Yo estoy forzada a depender de la iglesia para cumplir con las necesidades básicas de mi familia, ya que no tengo permiso de trabajar. También estoy siendo perseguida por ICE y ellos saben que nunca tendría una cantidad de dinero tan GRANDE. Estoy asustada y ansiosa, y siento que es extorsión.”

La persecución de ICE ha impactado la salud emocional, mental, y física de las líderes y de sus familias. Edith Espinal, demandante y líder en el movimiento está en santuario en Columbus, Ohio, recuerda, “Cuando yo primero aprendí que la administración de Trump estaba tratando de poner una multa contra mí, inmediatamente sentí escalofríos y comencé a llorar. Tenía tanto miedo y coraje porque vi esa acción como un esfuerzo del gobierno por castigarme por tratar de proteger a mi familia. He vivido constantemente preocupada y con miedo de que más el gobierno pueda hacer contra mi o mis hijos. Pero he encontrado refugio en mi fe y el amor y apoyo de mi comunidad.”

Free Migration Project y Austin Sanctuary Network, dos de las organizaciones que trabajan con las líderes del movimiento santuario apoyando la lucha por los derechos de los inmigrantes, han tenido que desviar gran cantidad de sus recursos de otros proyectos para poder responder a las acciones de ICE.

David Bennion, Director Ejecutivo de Free Migration Project dice, “Ha sido nuestro honor apoyar a las líderes de santuario mientras continúan su lucha defendiendo sus familias y comunidades a pesar de las acciones despreciables de ICE. Creemos que buscar santuario es una defensa sagrada de los derechos humanos fundamentales y una confirmación del valor inherente de todo ser humano sin tener en cuenta dónde nació.”

Entre otras formas de reparación, las demandantes hacen su demanda para obtener un requerimiento permanente que ICE no pueda selectivamente aplicar sus reglas de multas civiles, daños y perjuicios, y una disculpa formal por el daño que la persecución de ICE le ha causado.

“Yo estoy pidiendo que ICE reconozca públicamente y corrijan su error. Es importante recordar que esta represalia está cayendo desproporcionadamente sobre mujeres, muchas que son indígena, y que ya han sobrevivido inimaginable violencia y persecución. Estas son tierras sagradas, y cuando los colonizadores europeos llegaron aquí hace casi 500 años atrás estas tierras no tenían fronteras ni exclusión de seres humanos. ICE no solo debe de rescindir estas multas si no también pagarnos reparaciones,” dice María Chavalán Sut, una demandante y líder en el movimiento santuario que vive en Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rafaela Uribe, Bertha Justice Fellow en The Center for Constitutional Rights, dice “Las líderes y familias al frente de esta demanda han vivido con incertidumbre y temor por demasiado tiempo. La administración del presidente Trump se ha enfocado en su persecución de las líderes porque ellas se han organizado juntas y han denunciado las reglas injustas de nuestro sistema inmigratorio. Esperamos que esta demanda resulte en reparaciones para las líderes y también que traiga atención a las reglas de inmigración injustas que usan retórica xenofóbica para castigar comunidades de inmigrantes.”

“Las multas civiles de ICE fueron diseñadas para callar a las líderes y son transparentemente punitivas,” dice Elena Hodges de NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. “Su enfoco en las líderes de santuario es solo el capítulo más reciente en la larga historia de agencias estadounidenses tomando acciones en represalia contra líderes del movimiento santuario,” agrega Katie Matejcak, otra estudiante parte de NYU’s Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.

“A pesar de los esfuerzos de ICE de callar a las líderes de santuario, ellas han continuado con su activismo. Los esfuerzos de las líderes del movimiento santuario han inspirado a muchas comunidades religiosas y otros grupos a hacerse parte del movimiento por los derechos de los inmigrantes. ICE no puede parar el movimiento santuario, y las líderes han hecho esta demanda como otro paso hacia la justicia,” dice Dinesh McCoy, Legal Fellow de Just Futures Law.

Para aprender más sobre el caso y la demanda presentada hoy, visite la página de internet de Center for Constitutional Rights.

Para más información sobre las organizaciones demandantes por favor visite las páginas:

Carrie Newcomer Benefit Concert

Happy 2021! Carrie Newcomer, who has hosted benefit concerts for ASN in the past, is having an online streaming concert on Saturday January 30th 7pm (8pm ET) and Austin Sanctuary Network will receive 30% of ticket sales that come through THIS LINK specifically:
Please invite your friends and family and join us for another evening of Carrie’s soulful and inspiring music – since it’ll be streaming online, they can tune in from anywhere so cast the net far and wide for anyone who you think would come and support Hilda, Ivan and Alirio!
Here is a Facebook event as well: https://fb.me/e/6iIHyTilE

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

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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: peggy@austinsanctuarynetwork.org 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

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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:






PRESS ADVISORY: Immigrant Leaders Who’ve Lived in Lockdown Throughout Trump Administration See Ray of Hope with New Commitments, Potential New Administration

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After living in sanctuary congregations for too many years, immigrants leaders are ensuring their cases are included in Democrats’ promises for a humane immigration system.

For immediate release:
August 17, 2020

Carmen Zuvieta, carmendezuvieta40@gmail.com, (512) 773-4508
Solveij Rosa Praxis, solveijp@gmail.com (619) 636-4551

(AUSTIN, Texas) – Democratic leaders voted to approve the Democratic Party Platform, and immigrant leaders in sanctuary are celebrating a major milestone in their fight for freedom. Hilda Ramirez and her son Ivan and Alirio Gamez, alongside other sanctuary leaders across the country inspired a critical section of the Democratic Party Platform that would defend immigrants with deportation orders like them.

Throughout the Trump administration, a national movement of immigrant leaders have organized community-based resistance to their deportations from the confines of sanctuary churches. Living in lockdown inside houses of worship, immigrant leaders courageously took sanctuary because they face death or separation from their family members if deported, and have little to no legal recourse for legal status within a broken immigration system. These sanctuary leaders represent immigrants with deportation orders across the country who have been failed by an unjust, inhumane immigration system that provides no relief in cases of humanitarian crises.

The Democratic Party finalized its Platform to include commitments to immigrant communities across the country in the section titled “Creating a 21st Century Immigration System.” It was amended to include language that re-opens the use of prosecutorial discretion, an enforcement tool that historically was available for cases representing humanitarian crises to grant relief from deportation. Prosecutorial discretion is a unique and powerful tool for cases that have met the end of the road with little to no options in the broken system and only have discretion as a way out.

Due to the Trump-era attack on prosecutorial discretion, in which the Trump administration specifically directed ICE not to use discretion as part of its zero-tolerance agenda, immigrant leaders in sanctuary have suffered for years, trapped in sanctuary congregations to survive and stay with their families. An action of last-resort, advocates see sanctuary as a different type of detention found to cause the same mental and physical health consequences as solitary confinement. This victory represents a path to liberation and survival for immigrant leaders in sanctuary across the country who had no options for relief prior to the inclusion of this amendment. Immigrant leaders like Hilda Ivan and Alirio have fought for their survival throughout the Trump administration, from the confines of sanctuary in Austin churches. Alirio, who would be murdered if deported said, “I am so moved, that there are people [Democratic leaders] who want to fight to liberate us. It gives me so much more hope that I’ll live.” Reflecting on including this tool for their freedom making it into the Democratic Party Platform, Hilda said, “It’s like you’re in a long, dark tunnel, and far at the end you begin to see a little ray of light, and we’re heading down that tunnel following that light.”

Sanctuary leaders have been meeting with Democrats across the country who have become vocal advocates for the issue at the DNC. The statement in support of the amendment was endorsed by over 200 Democrats from all over the country, including National Delegates and approximately 25 elected officials, representing Democratic unity on this immigration issue. Sanctuary leaders look forward to continuing conversations with members of Congress and the Joe Biden – Kamala Harris campaign.

Now part of the “Creating a 21st Century Immigration System” section of the National Democratic Party Platform, the amendment reads: “We will reaffirm enforcement officials’ ability to engage in the pre-Trump practice of prosecutorial discretion” opening a path toward freedom for many of the leaders in Sanctuary across the country. The amendment also promises protection for the sanctuary leaders and other immigrants involved in activism “from [ICE] retaliating against individuals for their political speech or activity, or because of their efforts to advocate for individual rights.” They have shone a light on the failures of one of the most anti-immigrant administrations in history and have been targeted and threatened by ICE for their activism. One sanctuary leader, Samuel Oliver-Bruno, was taken from his family and deported at what immigration officials had promised would be a routine check-in. Many more have been threatened with fines of up to half a million dollars by ICE.

This amendment also gives Congressional Representatives new tools to support immigrant leaders, such as stays of removals and private bills. For years, sanctuary leaders have been fighting for these very tools to be used to grant relief for sanctuary leaders across the country. The cases of sanctuary leaders inspired this commitment to reaffirm prosecutorial discretion and related tools, and they represent thousands of similar cases that fall through the cracks of a broken system. All of these are clear cases for the use of prosecutorial discretion, given their deep community support and humanitarian stakes. They are people like Hilda and her son Ivan Ramirez, Alirio Gamez, Maria Chavalan Sut or Rosa Gutierrez, or Abbie Arevalo who will be killed if deported back to the respective Central American countries they fled. They are also like Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, Juana Tobar, Alex Garcia and Vicky Chavez who would be separated from their children. Immigrant leaders in sanctuary and their advocates are hopeful that prosecutorial discretion will be used for their cases to reaffirm the existence of discretion and set a new tone for the immigration system with a new administration. It would also signal a commitment to the broader immigrant community that has experienced the impacts of an inhumane, dysfunctional system and have not been included in comprehensive immigration reform in the past.

Support Alirio, Hilda and Ivan in Sanctuary

Alirio and Hilda are still in Sanctuary, but there are ways you can support them even during this time of global pandemic.

Sign a Petition

Image of a church sanctuary

For delivery to: Rep. Jackson Lee, Rep. Hurd, Rep. Sylvia Garcia and Rep. Roger Williams

I am writing to urge you to take immediate action to ensure an emergency, temporary Stay is granted for both Alirio and Hilda and her son, Ivan. It is near impossible for them to take proper precautions and prepare for the pandemic with the threat of active ICE enforcement looming.

We believe it is possible to still protect the First Amendment freedom of religion, while at the very same time protecting the health and safety of everybody in Texas. Given the recent developments around this national health emergency, we believe common sense dictates lifting the threat of deportation against vulnerable immigrants like Hilda, Ivan and Alirio.

Hilda, and her 14 year-old son Ivan have now lived in a Sanctuary church for over 1,400 days. Alirio has lived in a different Austin church for over 900 days now. Both are fearful of leaving Sanctuary, knowing it would mean deportation and instant-death in their home countries. Given that both have open immigration applications pending, we believe it makes sense to grant a temporary Stay during this pandemic.

Given the current crisis it is extremely difficult for the community to get action on this request. I am begging your office to please prioritize this situation, and help us find a way to convince ICE to grant a temporary Stay for Hilda and Ivan, and Alirio. What do we expect these families to do if they are in need of urgent medical care?

Sponsor a Mask

Image of a handmade protective mask

Please consider making a donation to support Alirio and Hilda as they make masks to support those in need. This is something very personal to both of them. Alirio suffers from medical issues that would make him extremely vulnerable to this virus, so he wants to ensure those who are on the front lines are protected. He intends to donate his masks to the Austin State Supported Living Center. The church Hilda has been living at, for over 1,500 days now, has an active program that feeds the homeless and Hilda wants to ensure this community has masks to protect themselves.

Donations are needed for supplies to make the masks, and any additional funds will be used by Hilda and Alirio for their continuing work to stop their own deportations.

The Fear – and Hope – of Living in Sanctuary

This article highlights the mental distress that immigrants living in sanctuary experience and depicts Hilda’s experience in her home country and the Karnes Detention Center.

Hilda Ramirez is an asylum-seeker from Guatemala who came to the United States in 2014 after fleeing domestic violence. Ramirez and her son, Ivan, now 13, were detained for 11 months in ICE’s Karnes County Residential Center in South Texas. After their release in July 2015, they lived in a shelter in Austin for a couple of months, during which time Ramirez wore an ankle bracelet and had regular check-ins with ICE. Because an immigration judge denied her asylum case, Ramirez has a pending deportation order.

In February 2016, fearing immigration raids, she decided to seek protection by moving into the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin (it is against ICE’s policy to enforce immigration laws inside churches). Ramirez was previously granted deferred action, a temporary delay of deportation, but in March of this year, ICE denied her an extension. Recently, Congressman Joaquin Castro showed his support for Ramirez and Ivan by introducing a private bill to give them permanent status or a visa. Ramirez and Ivan are among 50 undocumented immigrants nationwide publicly known to be living in sanctuary. The church has been their home for almost four years. As told to Isabela Dias.

Click here to read the full article


PRESS ADVISORY: National sanctuary leaders call Austin community to Rise Up as Hilda, Ivan and Alirio lead the local fight for their freedom

For Immediate Release: January 28th, 2020

Media Contacts:
Jessica Duran, jessica@austinsanctuarynetwork.org, 956 622-2736
Peggy Morton, peggy@austinsanctuarynetwork.org, 512 751-6415


National sanctuary leaders call Austin community to Rise Up as Hilda, Ivan and Alirio lead the local fight for their freedom

What: Rise Up Press Conference
When: Wednesday, Jan. 29 at 10 a.m.
Where: St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church 14311 Wells Port Dr. Austin, 78728

Austin Sanctuary Network members gathered with the National Sanctuary Collective in St. Louis, Mo. in January to organize with others taking sanctuary throughout the country. Clergy, advocates, attorneys and sanctuary leaders discussed different collective national actions that could be taken to move politicians to rise up and act.

“It was a rare opportunity for me to speak with my friends across the nation working on the issue of sanctuary at the same time,” said Hilda Ramirez, who has taken sanctuary for almost four years in Austin. “What is very clear to those of us living in sanctuary is we need to be the ones in the forefront holding people accountable to their promises. We’re very much strengthened by the diverse interfaith connections from all around the country. That’s what gives us power, and we know we’re doing the right thing.”

Over the last year ASN has hosted seven press conferences, sent four delegations to DC for repeated congressional visits to advocate for families taking sanctuary across the nation. Locally, over 3000 people have signed ASN petitions, made phone calls, visited local political offices and collected signatures from clergy across the U.S. calling for action. ASN has moved Congressman Joaquin Castro and Congressman Lloyd Doggett to file private bills on behalf of Hilda, Ivan and Alirio, but none of the private bills introduced across the nation have been moved forward.

“As a member of the coordinating committee of the National Sanctuary Collective, I have personally scheduled more than 50 appointments with Democratic members of Congress asking them to schedule a hearing about ICE’s retaliation against seven women in sanctuary,” said Lynn Cervini, a member of St. Andrew’s. “Not one hearing has been scheduled. It’s become crystal clear that they do not consider sanctuary families a priority.”

Democratic leaders have said they would go to churches across the nation to visit immigrants who have taken sanctuary, but they haven’t. “We’re simply asking representatives and senators to take a genuine interest in the plight of these families. We want them to meet with our friends in sanctuary, shake their hands and get to know them,” Lynn said.

At the press conference, attendees will learn how to Rise Up and Act to make our political leaders accountable.

Austin Sanctuary Network is a coalition of 27 congregations and social justice non-profit groups that work to stop unjust deportations in the Austin Area. Find us at www.austinsanctuarynetwork.org