In April 2018, ICE ordered Rosa Ortez Cruz to turn herself in for deportation at a government office in Charlotte. Instead, the Honduran asylum-seeker sought refuge in a Chapel Hill church.
Now, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants to fine her $314,007 for failing to show up — or up to $799 for each day she has failed to do so.
In a letter sent to her and her lawyers through certified mail and provided to the Observer, ICE enforcement program manager Lisa Hoescht charged that Ortez Cruz had “willfully failed or refused” to present herself for deportation and “connived or conspired” to prevent her removal from the U.S.
In at least five states across the country, the Associated Press reported, similar notices have been sent to immigrants hiding out from deportation in churches — a practice known as taking sanctuary. As in schools and hospitals, the agency generally does not arrest people inside houses of worship.
‘Arbitrary and capricious’
These letters, advocates say, are a sign of the growing crackdown on asylum-seekers who have ignored deportation orders. A mass raid announced by President Donald Trump on Twitter was supposed to target over 200,000 such individuals starting on Sunday, though those arrests have largely failed to materialize so far.
“ICE is committed to using various enforcement methods — including arrest; detention; technological monitoring; and financial penalties — to enforce U.S. immigration law and maintain the integrity of legal orders issued by judges,” the agency said in a statement to The Charlotte Observer.
But while laws fining those who evade deportation orders have existed for years, lawyers say they have never gone enforced — even after Trump signed an executive order in his first days in office, promising that those fines would be collected.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Simon Taft, a lawyer for Ortez Cruz at McKinney Immigration Law Firm in Greensboro, calling the letter “arbitrary and capricious.”
In immigration cases where much smaller fines are issued, an immigration judge must provide advance notice. So it’s unclear why ICE waited for over a year to communicate with Ortez Cruz, Taft said, about a fine that kicked in when she took sanctuary last April.
And besides, he said, she is unemployed and has nothing of monetary value.
Taft and his firm have appealed her case up to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which is set to hear arguments this year.
He said Ortez Cruz could not comment because of the pending case. So did the Rev. Mark Davidson, the pastor at the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, which offered sanctuary to her in the facility it shares with the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.
Ortez Cruz, 38, had fled to the U.S. from Honduras with her young son in 2002 after an ex stabbed her multiple times, landing her in the hospital for over a month.
After living in Virginia and Washington, D.C., she moved to Greensboro, where she worked in a water filter factory and on a taco truck and regularly checked in with immigration authorities, said Davidson, the pastor. Ortez Cruz also had three other children, all of whom are U.S. citizens.
But in 2013, she was charged with misdemeanor child abuse and assault following a spat with her son. Ortez Cruz entered into an Alford plea — essentially, admitting that there’s enough evidence to convict her but not admitting guilt — and was given a 60-day sentence and two years of probation.
That incident led to her being placed in deportation proceedings. An immigration judge ordered her removed from the U.S. in 2017, and her appeal was denied a year later, prompting her to take sanctuary in April 2018.
At the time, Ortez-Cruz told The Herald-Sun in Durham that she did not want to move into the church, so far away from her children.
“But I have no choice,” she said, “because going back to Honduras is not an option. If I go there, it could mean the end of my life.”
More people are believed to be in sanctuary in North Carolina than in any other state, though ICE refused to say whether others in the state besides Ortez Cruz have also been targeted for the fines.
ICE must give those immigrants it’s targeting a notice and 30 days to dispute the fine. Taft said Ortez Cruz plans to do so “vigorously.” He noted Ortez Cruz was never notified she could be fined up to $799 a day for ignoring the order.
Once the agency issues a fine, it can be appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals. ICE refused to say how it would enforce the fines should it win the dispute.
Davidson said the letter has not deterred his church from its commitment to Ortez Cruz.
“It’s clearly an attempt to harass and intimidate people who are in sanctuary,” he said. “How many people have $300,000 to pay in fines?”
The church turned an office into a bedroom and built a shower, with a rotating roster of over 125 volunteers from the congregation providing security and support to Ortez Cruz around the clock.
“There’s a grave misunderstanding of who Central American refugees are,” Davidson said. “It’s not a crime to migrate from dangerous conditions. It’s not a crime to seek asylum.”