The Trump administration is seeking to fine some immigrants, who are in the United States illegally, hundreds of thousands of dollars for failing to take steps to leave after being ordered to do so, according to government documents obtained by NPR.
The Department of Homeland Security sent out a batch of notices across the country to targeted individuals ordering them to pay fines of up to nearly $500,000 for "failing to depart the U.S. as previously agreed," among other factors.
It's the latest hard-line effort by the administration as it clamps down on illegal immigration at the border and increases interior enforcement.
"It is the intention of ICE to order you pay a fine in the amount of $497,777," Lisa Hoechst, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, wrote to Edith Espinal Moreno in a letter dated June 25, 2019, obtained by NPR from lawyers for Moreno.
The letters come as the Trump administration prepares to carry out delayed immigration sweeps of migrant families who have received deportation orders. President Trump said Monday, while signing legislation providing $4.6 billion in funding to address the influx of migrants from Central America, that the immigration raids will begin after the July 4 holiday if Congress can't pass new restrictions on asylum laws.
At the beginning of his term, Trump signed an executive order promising, "as soon as practicable, and by no later than one year after the date of this order," that the administration would begin collection of "all fines and penalties that the Secretary is authorized under the law to assess and collect from aliens unlawfully present in the United States."
ICE said the Immigration and Nationality Act grants the agency the right to impose "civil fines on aliens who have been ordered removed or granted voluntary departure and fail to depart the United States."
It states fines of no more than $500 for each day the person is in violation of this section. But immigration lawyers say they've never heard of it used in this manner.
An ICE official said undocumented immigrants who willfully refuse to meet the obligations of an order issued by the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review may receive a "Notice of Intention to Fine" and then are subsequently provided a 30-day period to respond before a formal decision whether to issue a fine is made.
ICE officials said the agency began issuing these notices in December 2018 on a case-by-case basis, taking into account steps the individual has taken to fulfill the court's orders.
"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," ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke told NPR.
Pro-immigrant advocates argue the Trump administration is trying to instill fear and confusion in immigrant communities, expecting the immigrants will leave. They report similar letters being received by immigrants in similar situations in North Carolina, Utah, Virginia and Texas.
Espinal, 42, said she could not believe the U.S. government thought she would have almost half a million dollars. She has been living in sanctuary at an Ohio church since an immigration judge ordered her removed two years ago. The church, its congregation and the community have largely supported her and her family.
"They want to scare me," Espinal said, adding, "because they know I am in sanctuary. And they know I don't have this amount of money."
Espinal said she came to the United States from Mexico with her father when she was 16. She now has three children of her own, including two who are U.S. citizens. She said her whole life is in the United States and she cannot return to Mexico.
Leon Fresco, who served as deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Immigration Litigation in the Obama administration, said he could not recall a time when such high fines were used during the previous administration.
"It's a vivid illustration of the lengths the Trump administration will go to use any available authority to try to enforce immigration law," Fresco said. "I have not seen a $300,000 fine for failing to facilitate one's own removal."
Espinal's attorney, Lizbeth Mateo, said she started laughing when she first saw the letter. She fears the administration is laying the groundwork for criminal penalties and could use fees in other ways to increase pressure on immigrants to leave.
"It's almost half a million dollars. Are they for real? Do they really think that she's going to pay this?" Mateo said. "I laughed, because there has to be someone in some basement in D.C. thinking, 'Oh, what else can I do to mess with immigrants? What else can I do to hurt them?' "
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Trump administration is hitting some immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally with notices of fines of up to $500,000.
NPR's Franco Ordoñez first reported the news and notes that many are getting the notices while living in sanctuary churches. Welcome to the studio, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thank you.
CORNISH: So how did you learn of this story? What did you learn?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I started receiving these letters from immigrants telling me that they had owed the U.S. government almost a half million dollars because they had left the country - or they had not left the country, despite being ordered to do so. As you can imagine, they were stunned by the amount. It's clear that many of these immigrants won't be able to pay a half million dollars.
As you noted, many of them are in - living in churches, in sanctuary that - and these churches are places that support them. Advocates, lawyers see this as an example of the Trump administration trying to stoke fear and confusion in the community, as well as in the sanctuary community.
CORNISH: You reached out to some of these people. What did you hear from them?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I spoke to one woman, Edith Espinal. She had - she's living in a church in Ohio. She's been there for the last two years. Since a judge ordered her to leave, she got a letter telling her that she owed $497,000. She was stunned.
EDITH ESPINAL: They want to scare me because they know I am in sanctuary. The amount is $497,000. I don't know why they charge me.
ORDOÑEZ: As you can hear, she's confused. She says she doesn't understand why they want to charge her. She thinks they're trying to scare her because she's in sanctuary. And she doesn't understand how the U.S. government can even imagine that she could pay that kind of money. She - Espinal - came here in 1995 when she was just 16. She now has three children, two of whom are U.S. citizens. And she says she really knows no other life than here in the United States.
CORNISH: What was the response from the White House?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, immigration officials say that federal law allows the agency to impose civil fines on those who fail to leave. A spokesperson told me today that ICE is committed to using various methods to enforce immigration law and maintain the integrity of judges' orders.
You know, we should remember that it was two years ago that President Trump actually indicated that he wanted to do this. He signed an executive order in his first month of office where he promised that fines would be collected as soon as practical on those who are here illegally.
CORNISH: Right. And this comes in context of the Trump administration doing a number of things to try and increase pressure on immigrants in the U.S. - immigrants who are here illegally - either as punishment or an attempt at deterrent, right?
ORDOÑEZ: Right. Yes. This is - this really comes at a time that the Trump administration really is ratcheting up pressure. It's about to launch, you know, those delayed immigration sweeps targeting individuals and families who had already been ordered to be deported - that is, if Congress can't agree on some type of tightening of immigration rules - pardon me - asylum rules. It also follows the Trump administration signing a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package that not only pitted Republicans versus Democrats, but pitted Democrats v. Democrats. It is such an emotional and divisive moment right now on this issue.
CORNISH: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.