The decision to deny Denver immigrant Jeanette Vizguerra a stay of deportation, driving her into sanctuary in a church basement, was the work of a “rogue” ICE agent who broke with agency protocol, Colorado Congressman Jared Polis told media today.
“Normally it would be a very routine thing [for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] to say okay, we won’t deport you because you’re here waiting on your legal status,” Polis explained during a visit with Vizguerra in the First Unitarian church in downtown Denver, where Vizguerra has taken sanctuary. She has had an application for a U Visa — given to victims of violent crimes — pending for more than a year.
Instead, Polis said, ICE agent Jeff Lynch “has broken with what the agency normally does” by refusing to grant Vizguerra the stay of deportation she sought earlier this month.
The decision to name the agent involved was a considered one: “We made a point of naming the rogue ICE official,” Polis said, “and we will be encouraging ICE in Washington and the Department of Homeland Security to look into the conduct of this rogue employee.”
Asked how he knew that Lynch was a “rogue” employee and not simply operating under the instructions of a new administration, Polis said. “We certainly hope that that’s not the case.” At least for now, he said, the actions of Lynch are “unprecedented” and a departure from the agency’s stated guidelines.
Polis says ICE has so far been “extremely unresponsive” to his office. ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok told The Colorado Independent that the agency is currently working on a response to the congressman’s remarks today. This story will be updated when that statement becomes available.
Polis has been working with Vizguerra and her attorney Hans Meyer on this case for more than four years. Meyer said that the local ICE office has refused to provide documentation explaining its actions, a move he said “causes us major concerns, because it seems to indicate that there is some sort of personal ICE vendetta against Jeanette Vizguerra.”
In response to ICE’s recent actions, Polis, who represents Colorado’s 2nd district, will work with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette to request a formal deferral of action while Vizguerra awaits news of her visa.
In the meantime, Vizguerra is living full time in the church basement. Her children visit on the weekends, but she is apart from them throughout the week while they are in school.
She sleeps in a former archive room that has been reserved as a place for sanctuary since 2013. Both Vizguerra and immigrant Arturo Hernandez Garcia have previously taken refuge in the church.
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.In 2009, she was pulled over for a traffic violation and later convicted of using a false Social Security number and eventually was ordered deported. She regularly checked in with immigration officials and was granted at least five stays of removal. Under the Obama administration, she was not considered a priority for deportation.
“This moment is very bad for me,” Vizguerra told the assembled media, who crowded around with notepads, microphones and large TV cameras. Today marked more than two weeks in sanctuary, and though she appeared exhausted, she maintained her stoic and determined tone.
While her young grandson Santiago crawled on her lap, she said, “This state is my home. And I will continue working to change this immigration system. My family need[s] me, and I need my kids.”
Photo credit: Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent