Jeanette Vizguerra is a mother raising three kids by herself in Denver. She works long hours to put food on the table, helps them with their homework and does community theater when she can.
She’s also been fighting to stay in the United States for the past six years.
On Wednesday, Vizguerra and a cohort from the immigrant rights community gathered at the Meyer law office on Santa Fe drive in Denver to announce her most recent application for a stay of removal on the deportation order against her. With her grandkids tugging at the stuffed animal in her arms, Vizguerra expressed gratitude for the support she’s received so far and determination to not only fight her case but bring attention to all the others just like it.
“This is my home now. It’s my place,” she said about the country she’s lived in for the last 20 years. “People need to see what the system does and how it’s destroying families.”
Vizguerra came onto the radar of immigration officials in 2009 when a cop pulled her over for driving with expired plates in Aurora. The first words out of his mouth were: “Are you legal or illegal?” She ended up getting arrested for having a fake Social Security number that she needed to get jobs.
“I had a fake ID in college,” her lawyer Hans Meyer later mused about the situation. “I didn’t use it to put food on the table for my children — I used it to get into bars and meet girls and drink, and no one is trying to kick me out of the country.”
Vizguerra pleaded guilty, cooperated with the prosecution and ended up with a misdemeanor charge. But she was stuck in lengthy deportation proceedings and an appeals process. Then she got the sudden and unexpected news that her mother was dying back in Mexico. There’s never a good time to hear that news, but this was an especially bad time. Vizguerra had to choose whether to jeopardize her case or go say goodbye to her mother.
“It was a Faustian bargain,” Meyer said. “The legal system isn’t necessarily built to accommodate emergencies and sudden deaths, but that’s what defines the decisions people make to be with their family.”
She ended up making the trip to Mexico, but arrived after her mother already passed. Having been away for so long, the trip was alienating on top of tragic. “I actually felt like a foreigner there, felt like I didn’t belong even though it’s my country.”
When she came to rejoin her family in America, Vizguerra was caught by border patrol agents and sent to a detention center in Texas. She was released under supervision, went home to Colorado, then was suddenly taken into custody again, this time at the GEO Detention Center in Aurora.
While there, her friends and supporters staged a hunger strike, overnight vigil and public protest. Vizguerra used to work as an organizer at SEIU Local 105, and was connected to a whole host of other social justice groups that banded together to help her fight deportation. Among them are the American Friends Service Committee, Rights for All People, Colorado Progressive Coalition, Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, Coloradans for Immigrant Rights and Interfaith Worker Justice.
After two weeks, Vizguerra was released from custody. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) granted her a stay of removal, which she has since applied and renewed three times. Her first two were for a year each, but her most recent was for six months, which worries her lawyer because there was no change in her circumstance.
Meyer says that they’re simply asking for discretion. “We’re asking the federal government to make the right call even when they have the authority to do something else.”
The Obama Administration issued a memo in the fall of 2014 that guides ICE’s priorities so that limited government resources are spent on deporting high priority “illegal aliens” who pose a “threat to national security, public safety, and border security.”
Top priority includes convicted felons, gang members, terrorist suspects or anyone caught trying to cross the border illegally.
Vizguerra technically falls into that category. Not because she’s a hardened criminal — but because she was caught returning to America after that trip to Mexico in 2009 when her mother died.
“We don’t know yet how the federal government would interpret the abandonment of her appeal and reentry into the country,” Meyer says. “But the issue is simple. They think she’s a high priority, and we don’t.”
ICE does make exceptions in “compelling and exceptional” circumstances. So that’s what Meyer will have to demonstrate in their request. He thinks they’ve got plenty of facts stacked in their favor: Vizguerra has been here for nearly 20 years, has multiple citizen-children who depend on her, stays out of trouble, actively participates in her community and got two U.S. congressmen to write letters on her behalf (Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Jared Polis.) Nearly 3,000 people have also signed a petition urging ICE to close Vizguerra’s case.
“I couldn’t think of a more compelling and exceptional circumstance,” her lawyer said.
Meyer also indicated his client was recently the victim of a crime, the details of which are still sensitive. So there’s a chance she could qualify for protection during the investigation and prosecution.
Vizguerra also might qualify for the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans — Obama’s executive action that would give parents of American born children a temporary reprieve. It doesn’t grant legal status, but affords a three year exemption from deportation, and a work permit. In February, a federal judge in Texas issued an injunction that blocked the program from going into effect. The Obama Administration’s appeal was rejected, so now DAPA is in legal limbo as it bounces around the courts.
So it’s nearly impossible to know for sure how the federal government will treat Vizguerra’s case down the line. Meyer says they expect to hear back from ICE about their stay request by the end of the month.
“Sands shift all the time,” Meyer says. “In the interim, people like Jeanette have their lives ground into oblivion.”
Congress could change the letter of the law, but with the next presidential election two years away, politicians have proven incapable of moving on comprehensive immigration reform. That’s why for now, immigration policy is largely shaped by the enforcement priorities coming out of the executive branch. So the big question is who will be shaping those priorities next year?
Vizguerra says all the uncertainty is scary. But she’s committed to keep visiting schools, churches and community groups to spread awareness about the situation she and so many other families are in.
“One of the questions I always ask is ‘how many of you are actually from Colorado?’ And the majority are not. So I ask, ‘Well, why did you come to this place?’ For work, school, because it’s a better place for my family. And I say ‘That’s exactly what I did. The only difference is that a border divides.'”
Photo by Nat Stein.