When Jeanette Vizguerra’s attorney Hans Meyer walked into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Centennial this morning, he found the lobby full of armed ICE police.
“It is my belief that absolutely, immigration planned to take her into custody today,” Meyer said.
But Vizguerra, an undocumented immigrant, an outspoken activist and longtime Denver resident, was not there. She had planned to appear, as she has at each of her required ICE check-ins over the past eight years. She has so far been granted six reprieves from deportation. But this morning, she said she had a feeling that showing up would mean separation from her three children.
“In my heart, I knew that today was different than in the past,” she said via phone to the large and emotional crowd that had gathered outside the building to offer support. “In my heart, I knew that they were going to deny me my stay.”
Her heart was right: Around 10 a.m., while Vizguerra was entering sanctuary in Denver’s First Unitarian church, ICE agents in Centennial told her attorney that her request for another stay of removal had been denied.
Nearly 100 people, many of them members of First Unitarian, appeared at the ICE facility this morning in solidarity with Vizguerra. They sang, chanted and held signs imploring the powers that be to let her stay with her children in the United States. Many broke into tears upon hearing the news that the stay had been denied.
Reverend Anne Dunlap, who has worked with Vizguerra for years and was present in this morning’s meeting, blames the outcome directly on President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
“What is very clear from [our conversation with ICE] is that they were waiting until the new administration came into power, so they could make this choice now,” she said. Vizguerra received no word from ICE for 69 days after submitting her stay request, and Dunlap said she suspects it is because “ICE wanted to wait until harsher orders came down from DC.”
Vizguerra, 45, is originally from Mexico, but she has lived in Denver for nearly 20 years, working as a janitor and labor organizer and volunteering with several progressive groups. She first came to the attention of the authorities in 2009, when she was pulled over for having expired license plates and police discovered she was using a false Social Security number to work. The resulting charges have followed her ever since.
“Jeanette Vizguerra-Ramirez, from Mexico, has two misdemeanor convictions. On Nov. 18, 2011, a federal immigration judge originally issued her final orders of deportation to Mexico. Based on these factors, Vizguerra-Ramirez is an ICE enforcement priority,” said ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer in an emailed statement.
In the same statement, ICE said that stay of removal requests are “typically issued to allow the individual time to prepare to leave the United States.”
A little more than a year ago, Vizguerra submitted an application for a U Visa, which is set aside for victims of violent crimes.
In a conversation with Meyer and Dunlap, ICE officials attributed their decision to deny Vizguerra’s stay to her failure to appear. But Meyer said he believes the decision likely would have been the same regardless.
“Jeanette’s case is Exhibit A of the brutality and the stupidity of Trump’s immigration enforcement plan,” he said. “The Trump administration is trying to bully people into giving up their rights, instill fear in immigrant communities and deprive immigrants of due process. We will not let that happen.”
Now that Vizguerra has entered sanctuary, she will live in the downtown Denver church full-time, seeing her children on weekends. Under previous presidential administrations, ICE officials would not deport immigrants who sought sanctuary in churches or schools, but Meyer acknowledged that there are no guarantees: Granting safety from deportation to immigrants in sanctuary is a practice, not an official policy.
As more undocumented immigrants face the reality of deportation under Trump, Denver immigration activists are facing a shortage of churches to offer sanctuary. Vizguerra herself is the leader of an effort to provide more sanctuary churches, but said that when she began the work years ago, “I never thought that I would be the one that would need it.”
Vizguerra’s check-in with ICE was a major media draw, which appeared to frustrate longtime advocates. Outside the ICE facility, there were so many reporters, TV cameras and microphones that many community members complained that they couldn’t see or hear well enough to learn about the fate of a woman they have supported for years.
When finally Vizguerra spoke, on speakerphone and amplified by a bullhorn, her devastation was audible. “Today ICE broke trust with me and the community,” she said, crying. “By denying my stay, they made it clear that check-ins are not a place that you can count on to be safe, and to negotiate and find a way forward. There isn’t any trust going forward.”
But she also offered hope: “This is not the end for any of us. This is not a loss, this is just another step in a long, long journey.”
When the news had settled, immigrant rights activist Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee asked the large group of supporters to put down their signs, feel the sun on their faces and hold hands. They offered a moment of silence for Vizguerra and others in the community who will face similar obstacles in the coming weeks.
Then Piper invited the crowd to voice words that they felt compelled to share.
“Light.” “Love.” “Empathy.” “Peace,” the crowd said. “Unity.” “Welcome.” “Resilience.”
“Resist.” “Resist.” “Resist.”
Photos by Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent