USA First Look

Mexican mother fleeing deportation finds refuge in Colorado church

Jeanette Vizguerra sought sanctuary after federal law enforcement officials declined to grant her a sixth stay of removal, saying criminal misdemeanors made her case an 'enforcement priority.'

Jeanette Vizguerra, a Mexican woman seeking to avoid deportation from the United States (c.) speaks as she holds her 6-year-old daughter, Zuri (r.), while Jennifer Piper (l.) of the American Friends Service Committee, looks on during a news conference in a church in which Ms. Vizguerra and her children have taken refuge, on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP | Caption

A Mexican mother of four took sanctuary in a Denver church on Wednesday to avoid being deported by federal immigration authorities, amid a White House promise to crack down on illegal immigration.

Her case highlights a reinvigoration of the historically strong sanctuary movement in the United States since the election of Donald Trump last year.

Jeanette Vizguerra, who has lived in the US for 20 years and has three US-born children ages 6, 10, and 12, took refuge at the First Unitarian Society church after US Immigration and Enforcement officials refused to grant her another “stay of removal” as she waits on the outcome of her visa application. Ms. Vizguerra has applied for a so-called U visa, which is often granted to people who are victims of crime. She was granted five extensions under the Obama administration because officers know such applications can take two to three years to be approved.

Vizguerra, however, did not show at her scheduled check-in with Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials in the Denver suburb of Centennial. As around 100 people protested outside the immigration building, her attorney Hans Meyer and a minister went inside where agents confirmed her extension would not be granted.

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said that Vizguerra was an "enforcement priority" because she had two misdemeanor convictions: one for using falsified documents and another for re-entering the US illegally after returning to Mexico for her mother’s funeral, Reuters reported. A judge had ordered her final deportation in 2011.

"This is a big, huge red flare that the Trump administration has plans to deport as many people as possible," said Mr. Meyer, who did not respond to questions about the crime of which Vizguerra was a victim.

The sanctuary movement has been making headlines more frequently since the election of President Trump last year, but the ramp-up in church efforts to illegally shelter undocumented immigrants started during the Obama administration.  

In a nationwide campaign, the Department of Homeland Security began targeting the hundreds of families that crossed the border illegally in 2016. Many of these families were fleeing such countries as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras where an uptick in gang violence has sent an increasing flow of refugees to the US.

Since the 2016 election, the sanctuary movement has become a subject of intense debate, as some cities have said they will not assist federal authorities in deportation efforts, despite the possibility of losing federal or state funding.

College campuses have also been drawn into the fray, epitomized by a nationwide student walkout last November as university students petitioned their schools to become so-called sanctuary campuses.

The modern sanctuary movement started in the 1980s, when thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing civil wars were offered refuge by religious congregations.

In Vizguerra’s case, Meyer said she was trying to avoid what happened to Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, an Arizona mother of two deported last week to Mexico as she left her husband and American-born children in the US. Ms. Rayos’s case drew widespread condemnation from advocates for undocumented people.

Addressing supporters in person at the church, Vizguerra, a former union organizer and house cleaner, said she was arrested for not having a driver’s license or current vehicle registration. Officers also discovered she had a forged identity documents, saying she had a fake Social Security number made up of digits from her birth date.

She was joined at the altar by three of her four children and said her only crimes were related to working in the country illegally in support of her family.

"You can see the reasons behind me why I am fighting so hard to win my case," she said of her family, the Associated Press reports.

Vizguerra told her children last week that she had decided to stay in a basement room of the church, which was painted in 2014 in preparation for the purpose of housing immigrants seeking sanctuary.

A number of Democratic politicians in Colorado have voiced support for Vizguerra, including the mayor of Denver.

The case is a "result of a broken immigration system – a system made worse by the chaotic actions of the White House and ICE," said Mayor Michael Hancock.

"Jeanette is not a threat to the community and is someone who has persistently pursued legal status through the proper channels," Mr. Hancock said in a statement.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.