Vicky Chávez and her two young daughters have lived at First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City for three years. In 2014, Ms. Chávez fled domestic abuse and violence in Honduras, seeking asylum in the United States. After her asylum application was denied, federal immigration officials ordered her to depart the United States voluntarily in 2018 or face deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Poised to board a one-way flight to Honduras with her daughters, the youngest just 5 months old, Ms. Chávez instead sought sanctuary for her family inside a church, a sensitive location where immigration enforcement has traditionally been off-limits.
Ms. Chávez’s choice to enter the confines of a church to protect her children was no doubt difficult. The decision for First Unitarian Church was easy. We voted to open our doors to the Chávez family as an act of faith. We believe that the doors of a church, like those of a nation, must remain open to those who seek its refuge.
In the time since the Chávez family first entered our church, immigration policies have become only more unjust. In 2019, federal immigration officials began sending letters to a group of undocumented immigrants who had been ordered removed and were living in houses of worship, stating that ICE would impose fines of hundreds of dollars a day against them for “willfully” refusing to leave the country or having “connived or conspired” to prevent their own deportation.
Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation show that ICE used these fines to target people seeking sanctuary in houses of worship who had been outspoken about their cases, including Ms. Chávez. These unconscionable fines — most of which were initially $200,000 to $500,000 and reissued at around $60,000 — serve no legitimate purpose except to frighten people like Ms. Chávez and target those who support immigrants.
We had hoped that the fines policy would be quickly disavowed and the fines rescinded after the election of President Joe Biden and the appointment of his homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas — who, like Ms. Chávez’s youngest child, sought protection from persecution and violence as a baby. The little girl, now 3 years old, immediately understood the significance of Biden’s victory. Only as one who has lived inside a church for virtually her entire life could, she told her mother, “Now we can go to Disneyland.”
Ms. Chávez has been granted a stay of removal for one year, but ICE has yet to withdraw its fines policy. Even as changes in enforcement priorities give new hope that her family and others might leave the confines of sanctuary churches, these retaliatory fines cast a shadow over any prospect that these families have of being truly free.
The hope for change wrought by a new administration permeates the halls and corridors of sanctuary churches. Jesus made it clear that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, with no boundaries placed on how far to extend this neighborly policy. He also provided a litmus test for pleasing God: giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and (most of our nation has conveniently forgotten) welcoming the stranger.
Our congregation’s decision in 2018 to provide sanctuary to the Chávez family was unanimous. So, too, is our decision now to join her and other sanctuary leaders in a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE for their cruel and retaliatory policies.
The past three years have taught us that faith cannot be passive. It must fight alongside those who seek to right the tyranny of injustice. By targeting immigrants in sanctuary, Homeland Security and ICE threaten our most fundamental values, including those enshrined in the First and Eighth Amendments of the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Freedom of speech and religion means little if our government may choose to levy its most aggressive penalties on indigent asylum seekers who, moved by their faith, dare to speak out about their plight and openly seek the refuge of our churches. Nor does the Constitution allow our government to use excessive fines to punish.
If these fines are allowed to persist, Ms. Chávez and her daughters face financial ruin and will lose all hope of living a normal life, even as Mr. Biden begins to put in place long-awaited reforms to asylum and immigration policies. Through this lawsuit, Ms. Chávez and the other sanctuary leaders demand that the agencies cancel these fines and end the retaliation against immigrants in sanctuary so they may finally live in freedom and safety here in the United States.
Those in high office can affect the lives of others. Mr. Biden has been granted such power through the democratic process, and millions of immigrants now turn to him to adopt humane immigration policies that will include granting families in sanctuary relief from fines, detention and deportation. He has the opportunity to shape a new world where the lives of immigrants are no longer filled with fear.
Policies change when society recognizes that applying justice remains incomplete. And change makes it possible to inspire hope among those whose lives have not yet been blessed by the principles that proclaim we are all born in the likeness of God. Love and compassion must prevail if we are worthy to be considered children of God. Immigration laws must change as laws have always changed, for the purpose of serving all humankind fairly.
Ms. Chávez’s youngest daughter dreams of visiting Disneyland, just as her mother dreams of the freedom to live a normal life. The congregation of First Unitarian Church joins Ms. Chávez and other sanctuary leaders in their lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE.
Mr. Biden faces a crucial choice: Will he and his administration choose to defend a Trump-era policy of retaliation and fear, or will he ensure justice for these families and use his power to set them free?
Tom Goldsmith is the senior minister of Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church, which has housed an undocumented immigrant mother and her children since 2018.