Since Feb. 15, Jeanette Vizguerra has been living out of a converted storage closet in the basement of the First Unitarian Society of Denver church at 1400 N. Lafayette St. She fears deportation to Mexico and sought refuge at First Unitarian after skipping a scheduled meeting with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials.
The mother of four has had a busy couple of weeks as her situation has become an international news story. She has had several high-profile visitors, including Representatives Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, and staff from Sen. Michael Bennet’s office.
First Unitarian Denver
The First Unitarian Society building at 1400 Lafayette St.
“Undocumented immigrants have heart-rending stories to tell, each different, and each providing food for thought. They all have one thing in common: this country needs comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for those who earn it. The current system is broken, and we shouldn’t be deporting people who have been among us for years, taking part in our community and just trying to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones,” Rep. DeGette said.
Vizguerra’s three youngest children, who were all born in the U.S., are 6, 10 and 13. They come to visit her sometimes after school and stay with her at the church on the weekends, but live with her husband—who is also undocumented—during the week, so they can go to school.
She said through a translator her children are anxious but understand what is going on because she has been open with them about her situation since the beginning. The stressful part for them is not having her as a part of their lives on a daily basis.
The first thing Vizguerra does each morning is call her kids to be sure they are getting ready for school. She watches her grandchild at the church during the day for her oldest daughter, who is studying to be a teacher. The only time Vizguerra leaves the building is to take her trash out, but she always looks around first to be sure no one is there.
Vizguerra is eligible for, and has had a U Visa application pending, for over four years. U Visas are helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. Since her application is pending, she was granted stays of deportation under the Obama administration, but still had to periodically check in with ICE. Her case is more complicated because she was caught with a fake social security card in 2009, which she needed to work. While this offense is a misdemeanor, it makes her a greater deportation priority for the current administration.
In February, Vizguerra did not attend her last scheduled meeting at the ICE office. Her lawyer and a minister went instead. There were officers waiting for her and there was little doubt Vizguerra would have been taken into custody had she gone.
Rev. Mike Morran is the senior pastor at First Unitarian. His congregation also provided sanctuary to Arturo Garcia for nine months in 2014. Morran describes the current immigration system as “obscenely immoral” and desperately needing to be fixed.
Morran said, “In a country that focuses on the rule of law, the punishment should fit the crime. People convicted of misdemeanors typically have to pay a fine or do community service. The punishment they are proposing for Jeanette is deportation, which would separate her from her family. That’s nuts and serves no one.”
There are numerous individuals in the Denver area being impacted by the changes in immigration policy. Metro State University has one of the highest percentages of undocumented students in Colorado; as of their fall census, the school had 340 ASSET (Advancing Students for a Stronger Tomorrow) students. ASSET is a Colorado law signed in 2013 allowing eligible students to pay in-state tuition at Colorado’s public colleges and universities. Before ASSET, undocumented MSU students had to pay out-of-state tuition. The legislation supports MSU’s mission of inclusion and diversity.
Gregor Meider, MSU Immigrant Services Program Coordinator, said, “While many of our immigrant students have a heightened anxiety level since the presidential election, they are more worried about their parents. The question becomes, if my parents get deported what happens to my life?”
Approximately two-thirds of the undocumented students MSU Immigrant Services serves have DACA status. DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was an executive order President Obama enacted in 2012. It has helped roughly 750,000 young people who were born in other countries—but brought to the U.S. by their parents—enroll in college, get driver’s licenses and obtain two-year legal work permits, all while being protected from deportation. However, it is a temporary solution that provides no path to citizenship, and could be repealed at any time by the President.
Cesiah (who asked to have her last name omitted to protect her identity) is an MSU Senior who will be graduating in May with a B.A. in Political Science. Born in Mexico, she has been living here since she was six. Her parents and some family members are undocumented. Two of her family members were deported under the Obama Administration.
Cesiah is concerned about the future of DACA and does not know what she will do if it gets repealed. She said, “No one wants to live in fear under these uncertain conditions. We need to move past only having a work permit that has to be re-approved every two years.” Her current work permit expires in September 2018.
Back at First Unitarian, Rev. Morran has observed a certain mentality he feels exists among some Americans. “Many people in our country want to treat immigration as if there is an “us” and “them.” There is no “us” and “them.” There is only “us.” Anyone in the U.S. who has eaten food, stayed in a hotel or visited a building constructed in the last 50 years is already in a relationship with the immigrant community that works in these industries. You can’t just say “them” and pretend they are someone else. We are all already intimately economically, socially and culturally involved. You can’t pull that thread out of the tapestry.”