The Trump administration is withdrawing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against some immigrants in the country illegally who have sought refuge in churches.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has withdrawn the fines, ranging from $300,000 to nearly $500,000 for five immigrants living in sanctuary conditions around the country, according to the National Sanctuary Collective, which works with the families.
Edith Espinal Moreno, who has been living in a church in Ohio over the past two years, received a notice from ICE in June telling her that she owed $497,000 for "failing to depart the U.S. as previously agreed," among other factors.
Last week, she received another note from ICE withdrawing the fine.
"Following consideration of matters you forwarded for ICE review, and in the exercise of the its discretion under applicable regulations, ICE hereby withdraws the Notice of Intention to Fine," Lisa Hoechst, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, wrote Espinal in the Oct. 17 letter.
NPR reported this summer that the Department of Homeland Security had 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 was just the latest hard-line effort by the administration as it worked to clamp down on illegal immigration at the border and increase interior enforcement.
The latest round of letters withdrawing the fines is a significant reversal for the administration. When he took office in 2017, President Trump signed an executive order that promised to 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."
"This is a victory," Espinal told NPR in a phone interview.
Espinal 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.
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.
ICE officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. This summer, officials said the agency had begun issuing notices in December 2018 on a case-by-case basis, taking into account steps the individual has taken to fulfill court orders.
Pro-immigrant advocates charged the administration with trying to instill fear and confusion in immigrant communities, hoping people would leave. They reported similar letters being received by immigrants in similar situations in North Carolina, Utah, Virginia and Texas.
"For almost three years now these women in sanctuary have been on the front lines of taking on the Trump administration," Mohammad Abdollahi, advocate with the National Sanctuary Collective, said. "This victory shows that the women in sanctuary are not only fighting for themselves but everybody. Others should stand up with them."
Espinal's attorney, Lizbeth Mateo, called the fines exorbitant and illegal.
"We know we have strong legal arguments and ICE recognizes that, even if they claim that this decision was based only on discretion," Mateo said in a statement. "But even if that were the case, ICE has demonstrated with this that they have the power to exercise discretion — the same way they can use discretion to drop these fines, they can use it to release the sanctuary families."
While relieved to no longer be facing such steep fines, Espinal said she still doesn't feel safe and will continue to live under the protection of the church.
"We don't have any other option than to remain in sanctuary, or I'll be deported," Espinal said. "We have to keep fighting."