For some, the change tomorrow will mean saving as much money as possible while they still can. For others, it’ll mean living in homes stocked with only the barest necessities, ready to move out on short notice. For at least one family, preparation for President Donald Trump’s administration means having their suitcases already packed.
With Trump’s inauguration only one day away, Colorado’s undocumented immigrants and their families are beset with fear and anxiety in the face of an uncertain future. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock have vowed to protect immigrants from Trump’s deportation policies, but have offered no legal protections to do so. Trump appears to have softened his stance on deportation since the election; his calls throughout his campaign to remove all 11 million undocumented immigrants have since shifted to remarks about deporting only those with criminal records. But his inconsistency makes it hard to know what to expect.
It is a frightening time to be living in Colorado without papers.
“There is so much uncertainty in the immigrant community about what’s going to happen next,” says Jeanette Vizguerra, who is undocumented. “There are concerns, worries, and fear, especially among kids. It’s so hard to hear kids ask, ‘What’s going to happen? Are they going to take you away?’”
For Vizguerra, a native of Mexico and mother to three U.S. citizen children, the upcoming change in administration is personal. After an 8-year battle to remain in the country, she is currently awaiting word from immigration officials about her latest request for deportation relief. She was hoping for news weeks ago, and the stress has taken an obvious toll. She looks tired, and tears come easily. But despite fears about her own situation, Vizguerra isn’t losing heart.
Instead, she’s doing what many Colorado immigrant advocacy groups are doing to prepare for the Trump administration: channeling her fears into organization, education and a commitment to fight for her rights.
Brendan Greene of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) says his organization has similar goals. “We’re training people to be prepared,” he says. “We’re telling people to educate and empower themselves, so that if anything happens they can make sure that they can protect themselves and their families.”
CIRC has organized statewide trainings, ramped up its citizenship program and trained student leaders to identify existing forms of relief for vulnerable immigrants. The group is also developing a hotline where people can report civil rights and constitutional violations that “might come up with increased law enforcement.”
Lisa Batten, an immigration attorney in Boulder, reminds her clients that anyone who has lived in the U.S. for at least two years is entitled to a hearing in front of an immigration judge. “They can’t just be summarily deported,” she says. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t worry. Batten is advising her undocumented clients to “lay low and see what happens.”
Batten has worked in immigration law for about 20 years, and she points out that Colorado has made progress when it comes to protecting its estimated 200,000 undocumented immigrants. In 2013, Gov. Hickenlooper signed the bill repealing the state’s “show me your papers” law, which required state and local law enforcement to turn in anyone they suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. The following year, all 64 Colorado counties stopped honoring federal “detainer” requests, which asked sheriffs to hold some foreign-born arrestees beyond their release dates so that immigration authorities could pick them up for further detention and interrogation.
But despite this progress, many undocumented immigrants remain fearful of law enforcement. That makes them less likely to report crimes or abuse, which puts them at an increased risk of victimization. Vizguerra was recently robbed, but hesitated to report the crime for fear of drawing attention to herself. She and groups like CIRC are working to build stronger relationships with Colorado sheriffs, so that Coloradans can feel safe reporting crimes regardless of immigration status.
In the wake of the election, Hickenlooper spoke publicly against Trump’s calls for deportation.
“If anyone thinks they’re going to go house to house and start rounding people up, it’s not going to happen in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said in mid-November. Mayor Hancock soon followed, saying, “We’re not going to needlessly detain people if if there’s not a lawful warrant to detain individuals….We’re not going to needlessly break up families when it’s not necessary.”
Such statements, says Julie Gonzales, a longtime immigrant rights activist, are “great first steps.” But without enforceable laws behind them, they offer no real protections. “We’ve been encouraged that cities like Denver, Aurora, Northglenn, and Greeley have put forth these ‘We stand with you’ type messages, but I want policies.” she says. “We need to enshrine this in code.”
Gonzales lauds the city of Boulder for having made a stronger commitment to immigrant protection than other Colorado communities. On Jan. 3, Boulder officially declared itself a “sanctuary city.” The term has no legal definition, but essentially means Boulder will not assist federal authorities with immigration enforcement. The term carries significant baggage: Trump has made multiple threats to cancel federal funding for cities that provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Denver, Aurora and Durango have all resisted the label, perhaps for that reason.
Losing funding is a sacrifice Mayor Suzanne Jones says Boulder is willing to make. “I think it’s very unlikely [that funding will actually be cancelled] and I also think there would be a huge backlash,” she says. In Boulder, the funds in question would amount to $8 million. “If by chance that would happen, we could weather that.”
Activists like Vizguerra are also fighting for another kind of sanctuary: Shelter in houses of worship to protect immigrants who face an immediate risk of deportation. Immigration officials typically will not enter religious spaces, but the process is difficult, and those in sanctuary may not be able to see their families for extended periods of time.
On Tuesday afternoon, a coalition of Colorado faith leaders marched in downtown Denver to announce “Sanctuary Rising,” a national week of action to draw attention to the need for more sanctuary churches. The Denver Sanctuary Coalition said in a statement that the event demonstrated “support and solidarity with immigrants, refugees, Muslims and all people who could be threatened under the next administration.”
This weekend, as President-elect Trump is sworn in to the nation’s highest office, hundreds of thousands of people from across the country will descend on the Capitol to protest. Though officially called the Women’s March on Washington, attendees will also include demonstrators from other groups Trump has threatened, such as Muslims, people of color, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people. “Immigrants aren’t the only ones affected,” says Vizguerra, and that solidarity is powerful.
Vizguerra had hoped to participate in the march, and was invited to DC to support her community. But she won’t be making the trip. While she continues to endure a “cruel and distressing” wait to hear from federal authorities about her next stay of deportation, her future remains in limbo.
She says that no matter what, she’s going to keep fighting, organizing and educating on behalf of her community — and her kids. “My kids are Americans. I want a better world for them. I want the system to be different, I want to combat hate and racism for all people. That’s why we came to this country.”
But she’ll be doing that work in Denver, not DC, joining the the local women’s march and speaking out closer to home. She’ll be spending a few more days at home with her three young children. Just in case.
Photo courtesy of Jeanette Vizguerra