Undocumented immigrant, Denver resident and longtime activist Jeanette Vizguerra is one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
So says TIME magazine, which included Vizguerra on its list as one of 20 “icons” this morning alongside the likes of Colin Kaepernick, RuPaul and Viola Davis.
“She shed blood, sweat and tears to become a business owner, striving to give her children more opportunities than she had,” wrote actress America Ferrera in the TIME blurb honoring Vizguerra. “This is not a crime. This is the American Dream.”
It’s an honor Vizguerra, 45, is proud — and humbled — to accept. Originally from Mexico, she has worked as an advocate for undocumented immigrants in Colorado for more than a decade.
“It doesn’t matter how hard this struggle becomes or how long it lasts, because nobody can take our dignity and no one will take our children from us,” she said during a press conference this morning accepting the award. She ended her remarks with a common refrain in the immigrant rights community: Sin papeles, sin miedo — no papers, no fear.
But unless Vizguerra hears from U.S. immigration officials soon, she won’t be able to make it to the prestigious TIME 100 Gala in New York next week to accept the award.
Since Feb. 15, she has been living in the basement of the First Unitarian Church in downtown Denver, where she chose to take deportation sanctuary rather than appear for a scheduled check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE has typically avoided taking deportation action in churches and schools.
On the day of the appointment, her most recent stay of deportation had expired and she still hadn’t received word from ICE about her request for an extension. She had a sinking feeling that showing up for the appointment would lead to her detention. Immigration officials officially denied her stay when she failed to appear.
Vizguerra’s award comes one week after another undocumented Colorado immigrant, Maria de Jesus Jimenez Sanchez, was detained and ordered deported after appearing for a scheduled ICE appointment.
ICE said in a statement following its decision that stays of removal are “typically issued to allow the individual time to prepare to leave the United States” and are not intended to be a long-term solution. The agency also said that Vizguerra is an “ICE enforcement priority” because she has two immigration-related misdemeanor convictions for using a false Social Security number and has had a deportation order since 2011.
Vizguerra, who has lived in Denver for more than 20 years, has an adult daughter and three young children. She currently has a pending application for a U-visa, available to victims of violent crime who cooperate with law enforcement.
Immigration attorney Hans Meyer is thrilled that his client has been honored by TIME. Her courage “to stand true against the nativism of the Trump administration,” he said, “serves as a humbling reminder of what the real American values of courage, dedication, and perseverance look like.”
Meyer says ICE “broke its own rules” in failing to extend a stay of deportation to Vizguerra, who was not considered a deportation priority under President Barack Obama.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, whom Vizguerra thanked this morning for his efforts on her case, feels the same way. Shortly after she entered sanctuary, Polis publicly said that the ICE official who denied her stay of deportation was acting against agency policy as a “rogue agent.” ICE said the accusation amounted to “name-calling and vilifying” the agent.
Meyer hopes to hear from ICE in the next few days with information about Vizguerra’s case, but said he has no idea when to expect such news. ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok told The Colorado Independent that the agency does not release information on future operations, for security reasons.
Immigration activists are pleased with the prestigious TIME honor, but say that Vizguerra’s situation demonstrates the hardship of being an undocumented immigrant in the United States, particularly under President Donald Trump.
“Even still, in ICE’s eyes, [Vizguerra] is not worthy of a stay of removal,” said Julie Gonzales, who works as the policy director for the Meyer Law Office. “It calls the question: What does an immigrant have to do in Donald Trump’s America to be able to stay in the United States with her family?”