AP

Immigrants Taking Sanctuary In Churches Hit With Huge Fines

Jul 30, 2019, 2:29 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 5:03 pm
Maria Chavalan-Sut of Guatemala speaks during an interview at the Wesley Memorial United Methodist ...
Maria Chavalan-Sut of Guatemala speaks during an interview at the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. Chavalan-Sut is among a number of immigrants taking sanctuary at houses of worship who have received letters from immigration authorities notifying them of their intent to impose a civil fine of up to $799 a day. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Devotional candles to St. Jude, the Holy Trinity and the Virgin of Guadalupe sit on a bookshelf by the door of a classroom in a United Methodist church. A sewing machine is a few feet away between a bed and a set of wicker furniture. In a corner, an electric skillet warming chicken thighs acts as a kitchen.

It is from these makeshift quarters that Maria Chavalan-Sut, an indigenous woman from Guatemala, has spent 10 months staving off a deportation order to a country that she says has scarred her life with violence, trauma and discrimination. Her fight for asylum could now cost her at least $214,132.

Chavalan-Sut is among a number of immigrants taking sanctuary at houses of worship who have received letters from immigration authorities threatening them with huge fines under the latest move by the Trump administration. It’s unclear how many immigrants have been targeted, but Church World Service, an organization that supports refugees and immigrants, is aware of at least six who’ve received letters.

“Where am I going to get (money) from? I don’t know,” said Chavalan-Sut, who worked for a while at a restaurant after arriving in Virginia more than two years ago but hasn’t been able to hold a job since seeking sanctuary. “God still has me with my hands to work, and they’re the only thing I have. If God thinks that with my hands I can pay that, give me a job.”

Chavalan-Sut began living at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church on Sept. 30, the day she was told to report to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office for deportation. She crossed the border into the U.S. and was detained in November 2016 near Laredo, Texas, after a weekslong journey that started in Guatemala’s capital. She said her decision to emigrate and leave her four children behind came after her house was set ablaze.

Chavalan-Sut, 44, doesn’t know who set the fire while she, her children and their father were asleep inside. But she believes it was linked to a dispute over land rights because she is an indigenous woman, her immigration attorney, Alina Kilpatrick, said.

Chavalan-Sut said an area fire official declined to investigate because there were no fatalities.

Immigrants have sought relief from deportation at houses of worship because immigration officials consider them “sensitive locations” in which enforcement action is generally avoided. Forty-five people currently live in sanctuary at churches across the U.S., up from three in 2015, according to Church World Service.

Among them are Honduras native Abbie Arevalo-Herrera and Edith Espinal-Moreno, of Mexico. Arevalo-Herrera took sanctuary at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, Virginia, in June 2018, while Espinal-Moreno has been living at the Columbus Mennonite Church in Columbus, Ohio, since October 2017.

Like Chavalan-Sut, both women received notices of fines. The three letters were signed June 25. Arevalo-Herrera’s fine is for $295,630, and Espinal-Moreno’s was set at $497,777.

Attorneys, activists and faith leaders have decried the fines. Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, characterized them as a “scare tactic.”

“So long as ICE continues to respect its own policy of avoiding sensitive locations like churches, which may not be a given, the agency will have to continue to resort to psychological games to coerce families out of their legal protections,” she said.

Wesley Memorial joined the sanctuary movement after an immigrant rights activist contacted the Rev. Isaac Collins asking for help. The church’s 31-year-old pastor said that while he has heard from other pastors who have expressed concern over mixing religion and politics, for him making Wesley Memorial a sanctuary was not a political move: It was a decision based on Christian ethics.

“When you start at, ‘Maria is a human being who’s in trouble and needs a place of safety,’ OK, (that’s) very firmly in the realm of ideas in Christianity about hospitality and human rights and loving our neighbors,” he said. “The church is a space that can provide that safety and that neutral space while she figures out due process. … It doesn’t get political until your political party is the one saying ‘Actually, Maria doesn’t deserve all these things.'”

Since seeking sanctuary, Chavalan-Sut has been able to talk to her children, now ages 7, 11, 14 and 21, for an hour a day, making sure the youngest ones do their homework. The oldest is now pursuing a degree in civil engineering. She left them all under the care of a family in Guatemala City. She weeps thinking about them.

The devout Catholic participates in Sunday services at Wesley Memorial with the help of a Spanish translator. She prays daily, and tends to a garden of flowers, herbs and vegetables. She sews headbands and bags using fabric that a son mailed from Guatemala. She can’t sell the items, but she accepts donations in exchange. She occasionally cooks tamales and other traditional foods at the church’s large kitchen.

At least one volunteer guards the church property around the clock. People take turns buying her groceries. Some are helping her learn English. All volunteers have been instructed to ask for a signed warrant should immigration officers show up.

The church has also provided Chavalan-Sut with a mental health therapist. The fire at her home is only one of many traumatic events she says she has experienced for being Kaqchikel, an indigenous Mayan group. As a 7-year-old living in Guatemala’s highlands during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war, she saw her cousins buried alive.

Indigenous communities disproportionally suffered during the 36-year conflict. Rachel Nolan, an assistant professor at Boston University whose research includes Central American civil wars, said the Kaqchikel experienced enormous discrimination and violence. While the peace accords signed in 1996 ended large-scale massacres for the most part, she said, indigenous people continue to face lower-levels of violence, including land dispossession.

Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said a judge ordered Chavalan-Sut to be deported after she failed to appear for an immigration hearing in July 2017. Kilpatrick, the immigration attorney, said that was because the notice to appear did not have a date and time, something immigrant rights activists say is common.

Chavalan-Sut’s motion to reopen her case was denied in July 2018. An appeal filed in December is pending in the Board of Immigration Appeals.

Cutrell said the Immigration and Nationality Act allows the agency to impose civil fines on individuals “who have been ordered removed or granted voluntary departure and fail to depart the United States.” The fines are calculated at $799 a day, from the date the immigrant took sanctuary to avoid removal.

Immigrants like Chavalan-Sut who have received fine notices have 30 days to dispute them in writing or request an interview to respond, which would mean risking leaving their sanctuaries. It’s unclear whether any of the immigrants, including Chavalan-Sut, have filed paperwork to fight the fines.

For now, Chavalan-Sut has turned to self-help books to try to cope. The Spanish versions of the New York Times best-seller “Rising Strong” by Brene Brown and bilingual evangelist’s Jason Frenn’s “Power to Persuade” are among the stack of books in her room.

In sanctuary, she said, she has begun to heal.

“So, I say, I’m just an example of the decisions that governments make,” she said. “They do not measure the damage that they are making. They are the ones who plant the seeds, and then many people leave their countries. … Why do they leave their country? Because they cannot stand it anymore.”

___

Associated Press writer David Crary in New York contributed to this report.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

AP

FILE: This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Pre...
AMANDA SEITZ, Associated Press

US plans end to mpox public health emergency in January

The federal government plans to end in January the public health emergency it declared earlier this year after an outbreak of mpox left more than 29,000 people across the U.S. infected.
17 hours ago
FILE - This undated artist rending provided by the U.S. Air Force shows a U.S. Air Force graphic of...
TARA COPP Associated Press

Pentagon debuts its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider

The United States' newest nuclear stealth bomber is making its public debut after years of secret development. The new bomber is part of the Pentagon's answer to rising concerns over a future conflict with China.
17 hours ago
F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Department of Justice on ...
ERIC TUCKER, Associated Press

FBI director raises national security concerns about TikTok

FBI Director Chris Wray is raising national security concerns about TikTok, warning Friday that control of the popular video sharing app is in the hands of a Chinese government “that doesn't share our values.”
17 hours ago
Flyer for killings of University of Idaho students...
REBECCA BOONE Associated Press

EXPLAINER: Deaths of 4 Idaho students fuel online sleuths

The deaths of four University of Idaho students nearly three weeks ago has riled up thousands of would-be armchair sleuths, many of whom are posting speculation and unfounded rumors about the fatal stabbings online.
17 hours ago
A hiring sign is displayed in a window of a store in Manhattan on December 02, 2022 in New York Cit...
Paul Wiseman, AP Economics Writer

EXPLAINER: 5 key takeaways from the November jobs report

For nearly nine months, the Federal Reserve has relentlessly raised interest rates to try to slow the U.S. job market and bring inflation under control.
17 hours ago
InfoWars founder Alex Jones speaks to the media outside Waterbury Superior Court during his trial o...
Associated Press

Infowars host Alex Jones files for personal bankruptcy

Infowars host Alex Jones has filed for personal bankruptcy protection in Texas as he faces nearly $1.5 billion in court judgments over conspiracy theories he spread about the Sandy Hook school massacre.
17 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 reasons you may want to consider apartment life over owning a home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Take this quiz before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Diverse Group of Energetic Professionals Team Meeting in Modern Office: Brainstorming IT Programmer...
Les Olson

Don’t let a ransomware attack get you down | Protect your workplace today with cyber insurance

Business owners and operators should be on guard to protect their workplace. Cyber insurance can protect you from online attacks.
Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Immigrants Taking Sanctuary In Churches Hit With Huge Fines