ICE ends Trump-era policy of fining undocumented immigrants, calling penalties ‘ineffective’

(CNN) — Immigration and Customs Enforcement will no longer issue fines to undocumented immigrants who have failed to depart the United States, the agency announced Friday, a reversal from the Trump-era policy that threatened immigrants with thousands of dollars in debt to the federal government.

ICE officials said the agency rescinded the two Trump-era orders on the collection of financial penalties after determining the policy to be “ineffective,” and that it intends to cancel fines already issued to undocumented immigrants.

The move, one of several shifts away from the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies, is part of the Biden administration’s effort to narrow the scope of immigration enforcement.

“There is no indication that these penalties promoted compliance with noncitizens’ departure obligations,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “We can enforce our immigration laws without resorting to ineffective and unnecessary punitive measures.”

ICE ceased issuing these fines as of January 20, and Friday’s announcement formalizes the policy change.

ICE began notifying some undocumented immigrants of the intent to file fines in December 2018, following then-President Donald Trump’s executive order calling on the Department of Homeland Security to “ensure the assessment and collection of all fines and penalties” from people unlawfully present in the United States and from those who facilitate their presence in the country.

In July 2019, when news of the fines drew national attention, an ICE spokesperson said the agency was “committed to using various enforcement methods,” including financial penalties, “to enforce US immigration law and maintain the integrity of legal orders issued by judges.”

ICE has had the authority to assess financial penalties to individuals for failing to depart for more than 20 years, but the agency did not initiate enforcement of these penalties until 2018, according to ICE.

Ultimately, leveling fines against undocumented immigrants proved unsuccessful, as the agency was able to collect only around 1% of the issued fines, according to an ICE official.

The number of people arrested and deported for being in the US illegally has dropped under President Joe Biden after his administration narrowed immigration enforcement to focus on those who may pose a threat or have criminal backgrounds.

Under the Biden administration, ICE has sought to prioritize immigrants who pose a threat to national security, border security and public safety. The change was prompted by an executive order signed by Biden shortly after he took office.

Previously, undocumented immigrants who did not comply with final orders of deportation from immigration judges were subject to fines of up to $799 per day, which could quickly add up to an extremely high cost. People who failed to voluntarily depart the US faced a fine of $3,000, adjusted for inflation.

Advocates denounced the use of fines as unjust and retaliatory toward the sanctuary movement, which includes seeking refuge from immigration authorities inside houses of worship.

In one case, Edith Espinal, an undocumented immigrant who had been taking sanctuary inside a church in Columbus, Ohio, received a “notice of intention to fine” from ICE for $497,777, which her attorney made public in 2019.

The agency ultimately withdrew the fine, along with fines for six other women who were living inside churches across the country, according to the National Sanctuary Collective.

“We knew that these exorbitant fines were illegal and nothing more than a tool to scare our clients and retaliate against them for fighting back and standing up to this administration,” Lizbeth Mateo, Espinal’s attorney, said after ICE revoked the fine.

At the time, an ICE spokesperson defended the policy, saying the agency remained committed to using financial penalties as an enforcement tool.

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