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Four immigrants who sought sanctuary in churches no longer face deportation

Hilda Ramirez and her son, Ivan, in 2017 at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, where they have been living for close to eight years.
Eric Gay
Hilda Ramirez and her son, Ivan, in 2017 at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, where they have been living for close to eight years.

A group of undocumented immigrants who sought sanctuary in churches to avoid deportation has reached a settlement with the Biden administration that will allow the women to stay in the U.S., at least for now.

During the Trump administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued massive civil fines against these immigrants — nearly half a million dollars, in some cases — as part of a broader crackdown on illegal immigration. But the Biden administration reversed course and stopped issuing fines.

Now the administration is going a step further: It's agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the four women who allege that they were targeted for retaliation because they spoke out publicly about their cases. The women took sanctuary in churches in Texas, Utah, Ohio and Virginia.

"This was never about collecting money," said Alina Das, the co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law, which helped bring the lawsuit.

"These women spoke out against a horrific policy, and they spoke out not only for themselves, but for others," Das said in an interview with NPR. "Now they're finally being given the opportunity for a clean slate to be free from the threat of deportation."

Under the settlement made public on Wednesday, the Biden administration has agreed to give temporary protection from deportation for three years to Hilda Ramirez, Vicky Yulissa Chávez-Fino, Edith Espinal Moreno and María Chavalán Sut.

"I now have these three years that I can actually enjoy with my son," said Ramirez, who fled Guatemala with her son Ivan, to escape from his abusive grandfather. For nearly eight years, they have been living at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin because she feared they could be arrested and deported after her asylum request was denied.

Immigration authorities generally do not make arrests inside churches, schools and hospitals under a policy dating back more than a decade. Around 50 immigrants are thought to have taken sanctuary in churches during the Trump administration, although the numbers are smaller now. The settlement only applies to the four women.

The Trump administration first announced the fines in July 2019, arguing that financial penalties for evading deportation had been on the books for years in the Immigration and Nationality Act. Those penalties had rarely been enforced.

"Those who have no claim to relief will ultimately be returned to their home country," the agency told NPR in 2020. By then, the agency had lowered the amount of the fines to nearly $60,000 — still far more than the immigrants said they were able to pay.

When the administration took office, it quickly moved to cancel the existing fines and stopped issuing new ones.

"There is no indication that these penalties promoted compliance with noncitizens' departure obligations," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement announcing the move in April 2021. "We can enforce our immigration laws without resorting to ineffective and unnecessary punitive measures."

But that move drew criticism from immigration hardliners. They argue that the Biden administration's decisions to roll back many of former President Trump's immigration policies have contributed to record numbers of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border over the past two years to seek asylum.

The new settlement also provoked a strong response from Jon Feere, who was a senior official at ICE during the Trump administration when the original fines were issued.

"It's outrageous that this administration is now allowing people with final orders of removal to stay in the country," said Feere, who is now with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think-tank that advocates for lower levels of immigration.

"We're talking about individuals who have had a full day in court. They were ordered to go home. They received a fine because they decided that they're above the law, and they ignored immigration judges," Feere said. "If this administration is sending a clear message that they will just cancel the cases and allow the people to stay, why would anyone follow our immigration laws?"

The Biden administration did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the settlement.

Wednesday's announced settlement does not provide any monetary compensation for the immigrants. But in the case of Ramirez and two of the other women, the Biden administration did agree to reopen and dismiss their original immigration cases — in effect, giving them a second chance to seek asylum or other protections in the U.S. The fourth woman is appealing her case, said Das.

The settlement is a "first important step" toward permanent legal status, Das said. "The ability to live here, to feel safe, and hopefully one day to be on that true path to citizenship that they and so many others actually deserve."

For Ramirez and her son, the settlement is a welcome development — but one she knows could still be taken away by a future administration.

"I just feel like it's a small Band-Aid," she said in Spanish. "Hopefully, in the long term, they will leave us alone, and we will be able to live in peace and calm. And that's all that I want."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.