Undocumented immigrant talks about life after taking sanctuary in Austin church

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to crack down on immigration and is doing so by handing out hefty fines to immigrants who have taken sanctuary in congregations across the country.

One undocumented immigrant in Austin, Hilda Mendez, says she's afraid for what's next. 

Hilda has been in sanctuary at Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church for about three years now. She says it's been difficult since she has been used to freedom.

“To be able to go walk outside and work. You're used to those things. Not to be closed off."

Hilda said she came to the United States in 2014 to escape the violence in Guatemala. However, the journey wasn't easy especially with her then eight-year-old son, Ivan Mendez, by her side.

“It was really bad,” Ivan said. “Bad things were happening.”

Ivan is now 13 but because he came to the U.S. illegally he says it’s hard to see the other kids his age living a normal life.

“They go to the movies with their mom and dad and then I think man, I wish I could be them,” Ivan said.

Ivan and his mother both shared it's hard to remain calm especially when letters from the Department of Homeland Security come in the mail.

This summer Hilda received a civil fine issued by the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with a hefty fine of more than $300,000.

“I was like how much is that amount?” Hilda said in Spanish. “I can't even count up to that high of a number.”

FOX 7 Austin reached out to ICE to see why they just started delivering out civil fines as of December 2018.

ICE replied with a letter saying, “Aliens who willfully refuse to meet the obligations of an order issued by the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration review may receive a Notice of Intention to Fine or (NIFS).”

The letter goes on to say: “Amounts associated with aliens who have failed to meet the obligations of their final removal order is statutorily set at no more than $500 per day; currently adjusted to $799 for inflation.”

Hilda is in the Austin Sanctuary Network received this letter. However another undocumented immigrant who is in sanctuary at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin did not.

FOX 7 Austin also asked ICE how many of these fines were sent out or are still pending but it stuck to its original statement.

Hilda says she first was afraid of the things happening in her home country and now it’s being in constant fear of immigration.

“It's sad to be living like this”, Hilda said in Spanish.

Hilda is not alone. According to the Voice of America, right now there are about 50 undocumented immigrants that are known to have sought refuge in 39 churches across the United States.

“Sometimes I don't get why they do not like people like us,” Ivan questioned but said he remains optimistic during this difficult time. “I just feel like everything will be good. Be positive.”

Hilda shared the moments behind closed doors may be trying but are worth it.

“You prefer to give your whole life up for your child,” Hilda says in Spanish. “To give your son freedom you prefer to give that up yourself.”

This week the members of the National Sanctuary Collective took a trip to Washington D.C. to ask for congressional intervention and ask for more answers on these fines. FOX 7 Austin is in touch with the network and will be following up with those local leaders.