While Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s sensitive locations policy, which forbids agents from arresting suspected undocumented immigrants in schools, medical facilities, and churches, remains in effect, the Trump administration is nonetheless ratcheting up the pressure to convince them to leave. 

ICE has recently begun sending letters immigrants who sought sanctuary warning them that if they do not take steps to leave the country within thirty days, they will be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

According to the Spanish-language newspaper La Noticia, these notices of intention to fine, or NIFs, went to “fewer than ten” undocumented immigrants in North Carolina, though ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said he couldn’t confirm the exact number. Cox did, however, confirm La Noticia’s report that one NIF went to Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz, a thirty-eight-year-old who has been staying in sanctuary in the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill since April 2018. 

Cox also said that, “to the best of my knowledge,” the NIFs were being sent to immigrants who have sought sanctuary. 

“While all persons who fail to depart are subject to fine under the law,” Cox said in an email, “you’re correct as to the best of my knowledge that the persons who have received letters are sanctuary cases of persons ordered removed who’ve failed to depart and instead fled to a designated sensitive location such as a church.”

Ortez-Cruz, who fled Honduras in 2002 after her ex-wife stabbed her multiple times and unsuccessfully sought asylum in the U.S., received an NIF telling her she owed $314,000—$799 a day for each day she has been in the church. 

“This administration knows no bounds in its desire for vindictive punishment of beloved members of our community, like Rosa,” Isaac S. Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, which shares the Church of Reconciliation, said in a statement issued by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition Wednesday. 

In his email, Cox said that Ortez-Cruz was convicted of assault and child abuse in 2013. She was ordered removed in 2017 and her appeal was denied in March 2018. 

But Ann Marie Dooley, an attorney representing Ortez-Cruz, says her client entered an Alford plea—in essence, an admission that the state had enough evidence to convict her but not an admission of guilt—to misdemeanor child abuse and assault following an “altercation” with her then-teenage son. She was given a suspended sixty-day sentence and placed on probation for two years.

Sandra Marquina, the wife of Jose Chicas, an evangelical pastor who has sought sanctuary in Durham’s School for Conversion for two years, says she has not received an NIF. Neither has Eliseo Jiminez, who has been in sanctuary at Umstead Park United Methodist Church in Raleigh since October 2017, says pastor Doug Long. 

“How in the world can an undocumented immigrant come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars?” Long asks. “Eliseo said if he had hundreds of thousands of dollars, he would go to Canada and not pay the fine.”

Cox says ICE began issuing the NIFs in December, though the media has only begun reporting on them this week. They originate with an executive order President Trump signed days after taking office directing his administration to “ensure the assessment and collection of all fines and penalties … authorized under the law to assess and collect from aliens unlawfully present in the United States and from those who facilitate their presence in the United States.”

The current fine for failing to “voluntarily” deport—it gets adjusted for inflation—is $3,000, though an immigration judge can increase or lower that amount between $1,000 and $5,000. On top of that, under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the penalty for failing to leave is $799 a day. 

It’s highly unlikely, of course, that any of the immigrants who receive these letters have the money to pay the fines. Advocates say the administration is trying to intimidate and confuse immigrants. 

As the attorney for a woman in sanctuary in Ohio who received an NIF threatening a half-million-dollar fine told NPR: “It’s almost half a million dollars. Are they for real? Do they really think that she’s going to pay this? 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?’”

Long, the Raleigh pastor providing sanctuary to Jiminez, says he’s less concerned about the threat of fines than he is that Trump will simply decide to do away with the sensitive locations policy altogether. 

“Personally, I trust ICE more than this administration,” he says.

Correction: The original version of this story quoted ICE spokesman Bryan Cox saying that Rosa Ortez-Cruz had been convicted of felony child abuse and assault. Her attorney says that is not true—she entered an Alford plea to misdemeanor charges. The story has been updated.  

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.