Joaquin Castro Bill to Protect Sanctuary Seekers

HR 4539 would rescind deportation orders for three Austinites currently in refuge in local churches


Hilda Ramirez (r) with her immigration attorney Stephanie Taylor (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After nearly a year of talks in D.C., immigration advocates have successfully convinced U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, to take action to protect a trio of Austin asylum seekers. In a rare move, Castro recently filed a private bill (that is, one that applies to individuals or a group rather than all constituents) HR 4539 to give Alirio Gamez, Hilda Ramirez, and her son, Ivan, permanent resident status – or at least a visa to remain in the country – and a request to rescind their orders of removal from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Gamez, who left El Salvador after death threats, has taken sanctuary in First Unitar­ian Universalist Church of Austin for the past two years while Ramirez and 13-year-old son Ivan, fleeing danger in Guatemala, have found refuge in north Austin's St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church for more than three years. Earlier this year, both adults had requests to extend deferred action on their deportations denied without "valid explanation." Amid a nationwide sweep to instill fear and punish asylum seekers, ICE slapped Ramirez with a $303,620 fine for "willfully" failing to deport in June, as the Chronicle previously reported. Ramirez's attorney Stephanie Taylor told us she filed a brief with ICE four months ago to contest the arbitrary fine, but not until this week did the agency announce it would withdraw the charges, which amounted to as much as $500,000 for some sanctuary seekers. "Following consideration of matters you forwarded for ICE review, and in the exercise of discretion under applicable regulations, ICE hereby withdraws the Notice of Intention to Fine," the agency wrote to families.

"We knew that these exorbitant fines were illegal and were nothing more than a tool to scare our clients and retaliate against them for fighting back and standing up to this administration," said Lizbeth Mateo, an attorney with the National Sanctuary Collective. The withdrawal, coupled with Castro's bill, has empowered advocates to continue fighting.

Austin Sanctuary Network board chair Peggy Norton tells us the months­-long push to file the bill, fought alongside the National Sanctuary Collective, involved door-to-door lobbying at Congress. "We had some pushback with Congress people saying this will never go through and it's a stretch," says Norton. "We had some serious convincing to do and we kept reminding them, you'll never know unless you try to file it."

After hearing the stories of these people "who have been forced to live their lives in churches or risk deportation" Castro says it became "abundantly clear" that they needed a bill that actually provides benefits when bureaucratic or legal remedies are exhausted.

"For Alirio, Hilda, and Ivan, who have been denied the dignity of building a home by [Homeland Security], a private bill is their only option," Castro wrote via email. "I know all three individuals – I personally escorted Alirio and Hilda to ICE offices and asked for relief on their behalf. But they have been betrayed by a broken immigration system that rejects their humanity. My private bill would eradicate this injustice and give all three the opportunity to build a new life."

Castro isn't the only one the sanctuary advocates have persuaded – in July, Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., and in Septem­ber Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, introduced bills for immigrants living in sanctuary in their respective states. Norton says these bills are "especially urgent" amid the ongoing retaliation against sanctuary seekers. Presently standing before the House Judiciary Commit­tee, Castro's bill still faces an uphill battle. "We are overjoyed that the member of Congress followed in our leadership and took this step," says Ramirez. "We are going to now ask other members of Con­gress to do the same. Those of us living in sanctuary need someone to fight for us. We need champions."

After nearly a year of talks in D.C., immigration advocates have successfully convinced U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, to take action to protect a trio of Austin asylum seekers. In a rare move, Castro recently filed a private bill (that is, one that applies to individuals or a group rather than all constituents) HR 4539 to give Alirio Gamez, Hilda Ramirez, and her son, Ivan, permanent resident status – or at least a visa to remain in the country – and a request to rescind their orders of removal from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Gamez, who left El Salvador after death threats, has taken sanctuary in First Unitar­ian Universalist Church of Austin for the past two years while Ramirez and 13-year-old son Ivan, fleeing danger in Guatemala, have found refuge in north Austin's St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church for more than three years. Earlier this year, both adults had requests to extend deferred action on their deportations denied without "valid explanation." Amid a nationwide sweep to instill fear and punish asylum seekers, ICE slapped Ramirez with a $303,620 fine for "willfully" failing to deport in June, as the Chronicle previously reported. Ramirez's attorney Stephanie Taylor told us she filed a brief with ICE four months ago to contest the arbitrary fine, but not until this week did the agency announce it would withdraw the charges, which amounted to as much as $500,000 for some sanctuary seekers. "Following consideration of matters you forwarded for ICE review, and in the exercise of discretion under applicable regulations, ICE hereby withdraws the Notice of Intention to Fine," the agency wrote to families.

"We knew that these exorbitant fines were illegal and were nothing more than a tool to scare our clients and retaliate against them for fighting back and standing up to this administration," said Lizbeth Mateo, an attorney with the National Sanctuary Collective. The withdrawal, coupled with Castro's bill, has empowered advocates to continue fighting.

Austin Sanctuary Network board chair Peggy Norton tells us the months­-long push to file the bill, fought alongside the National Sanctuary Collective, involved door-to-door lobbying at Congress. "We had some pushback with Congress people saying this will never go through and it's a stretch," says Norton. "We had some serious convincing to do and we kept reminding them, you'll never know unless you try to file it."

After hearing the stories of these people "who have been forced to live their lives in churches or risk deportation" Castro says it became "abundantly clear" that they needed a bill that actually provides benefits when bureaucratic or legal remedies are exhausted.

"For Alirio, Hilda, and Ivan, who have been denied the dignity of building a home by [Homeland Security], a private bill is their only option," Castro wrote via email. "I know all three individuals – I personally escorted Alirio and Hilda to ICE offices and asked for relief on their behalf. But they have been betrayed by a broken immigration system that rejects their humanity. My private bill would eradicate this injustice and give all three the opportunity to build a new life."

Castro isn't the only one the sanctuary advocates have persuaded – in July, Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., and in Septem­ber Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, introduced bills for immigrants living in sanctuary in their respective states. Norton says these bills are "especially urgent" amid the ongoing retaliation against sanctuary seekers. Presently standing before the House Judiciary Commit­tee, Castro's bill still faces an uphill battle. "We are overjoyed that the member of Congress followed in our leadership and took this step," says Ramirez. "We are going to now ask other members of Con­gress to do the same. Those of us living in sanctuary need someone to fight for us. We need champions."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

immigration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Alirio Gamez, Hilda Ramirez, Ivan Ramirez, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Stephanie Taylor, Lizbeth Mateo, Austin Sanctuary Network, Peggy Norton, Joaquin Castro, Department of Homeland Security, Lacy Clay, Joyce Beatty

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