Shelter from the storm

In the face of increasingly aggressive federal immigration policies, the Colorado sanctuary movement grows

Jeanette Vizguerra in her sanctuary room at the First Unitarian Society in Denver.

When Jeanette Vizguerra entered sanctuary in the First Unitarian Society church in Denver on Wednesday, Feb. 15, she brought national attention to a growing movement of activists and faith communities around the country working to protect undocumented immigrants facing rising deportation rates and anti-immigrant rhetoric over the last several years. But while the new Trump administration continues to roll out aggressive policies, broadening removal priorities and vowing to deport millions of people from the country, Jeanette has been fighting for immigrant rights for almost a decade. And considering sanctuary since 2013.

“This problem has always been there,” Jeanette says. “The difference is that Obama put some make-up on it with a smile and Trump is doing it in a very cynical, blunt way. He’s being very clear about what he’s going to do and he’s doing it.”

As Jeanette told Boulder Weekly in August 2015, she immigrated to Colorado from Mexico City in 1997, after her husband, a bus driver, was threatened at gunpoint multiple times. The mother of four and grandmother of three has been working tirelessly to stay in Denver with her family ever since her first run-in with immigration in 2009 when she was convicted of a misdemeanor for being in possession of false identity documents.

Although she was given a final deportation order in 2013, she has survived with six-month to year-long stays of removal, or temporary postponement granted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All through the process, she’s been a catalyst in Colorado’s burgeoning sanctuary movement, asking faith communities to commit to providing safe places where people can stay while fighting their immigration cases.

In December 2016, Jeanette applied early for another stay of removal while she awaits the processing of her U Visa application. A U Visa is a pathway to citizenship available to people who have been victims of violent crime (like Jeanette more than a decade ago) and who are assisting law enforcement in the prosecution of that crime. She applied for an extended stay of removal early in hopes that it would be processed before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, and before her current one ran out on Feb. 7.

But as that date came and went, and with no response from ICE before her scheduled check-in with the agency on Feb. 15, she started thinking about entering sanctuary. If she had any doubts about making that difficult decision, they vanished when friends told her about Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos’ removal in Arizona. Guadalupe, mother of two, was deported at her scheduled ICE check-in — something she had done without incident since 2013 — on Wednesday, Feb. 8. In the aftermath of President Trump’s executive orders on immigration and border security, Jeanette feared she would be next.

“I usually get this gut feeling when I know things aren’t going to be OK,” Jeanette says from her new, hopefully temporary, home in a brightly painted room in the basement of the First Unitarian Society where she took sanctuary.

Before we sit down to talk, Jeanette chooses a few items from a table full of food that has been dropped off for her — tortillas, rice, canned soup and an entire tray of Cup Noodles. She jokes about setting up a calendar for food drop off that extends several months “because in three months people will forget I’m here,” she says.

She coughs throughout our conversation, burying her face in the bend of her elbow, sipping on a tall cup of water. She’s been talking with multiple reporters a day and battling a cold at the same time. Her three young kids, ages 6, 10 and 12, are spending the night with their dad, so the basement is mostly quiet.

Starting in the spring of 2013, it took about nine months to get a plan in place and set up a sanctuary room at the church. Jeanette was involved throughout the process. She first approached the Colorado chapter of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a national Quaker immigrant-rights nonprofit, which in turn began sanctuary discussions with several area churches. The discussions eventually led to a the formation of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, a group of nine faith communities throughout Denver and Boulder County committed to keeping families together and protecting immigrants facing forced removal from the U.S.

“The point of sanctuary is not to make some big huge media splash and a spectacle,” says Jennifer Piper from AFSC and a spokesperson for the sanctuary coalition. “The point is to be able to negotiate or discuss with immigration (ICE) the positive factors we see in people’s cases that maybe they’ve missed and to push for discretion in those cases.”

After the First Unitarian Society overwhelmingly agreed to be the first host congregation, the coalition began converting a basement storage room into a living area, installing a closet and painting the walls yellow and white, Jeanette’s favorite colors.

“White because it means purity and yellow means hope, and then the room was finished,” she says.

But in October 2014, another member of the community needed a safe place to stay while fighting his immigration case. Since Jeanette still had several months left on her stay of removal, Arturo Hernandez Garcia moved into the room painted for her at First Unitarian Society, his wife and children often staying with him. He ended up staying nine months.

As Jeanette’s next ICE check-in approached and with room for only one family at the church, the coalition began planning for another sanctuary space, another place where she could stay if her next extension was denied.

Mountain View Friends Society, a Quaker community near the University of Denver, offered their attic room in response. However, Janette never needed the space thanks in large part to the actions of U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who has consistently introduced private legislation on her behalf.

Historically, when a member of Congress puts forward a bill asking for residency for an individual, ICE grants a stay to that individual simply because the legislation is pending.

With Rep. Polis’ help, Jeanette was continually approved for extensions to her removal. But that all changed with the new administration.

On the night of Donald Trump’s election, Jeanette stayed up until around midnight, watching in disbelief as the Republican candidate won state after state. “I decided to go to sleep and get some rest because I knew the next day I’d have a lot of work,” she says.

The following morning she started organizing with other activists and groups at the local, state and national level, making plans for “know your rights” classes and protests around the inauguration in January.

“As a response to him taking the presidency, we were going to take to the streets — particularly against the climate he created of hate, racism and discrimination,” she says. Jeanette marched in Denver both on inauguration day and as part of the Women’s March on Jan. 21.

She began to think about entering sanctuary once again, even as she helped others explore the option at the same time. One of those she talked with was Ingrid Encalada Latorre.

Ingrid and her son Anibal await action from ICE on her stay of removal application in sanctuary at the Mountain View Friends Society in Denver.

Ingrid first learned about sanctuary from her niece who had seen news reports of Arturo’s nine-month stay at First Unitarian. Originally from Peru and facing separation from her two U.S. born children, she contacted Jeanette who put her in touch with the sanctuary coalition. She began going to a support group sponsored by AFSC for families facing or experiencing the threat of deportation. After pleading guilty to a felony for identity theft in 2010 on bad-advice from a lawyer who told her this wouldn’t affect her immigration status, Ingrid spent four and a half years on probation and paid $11,500 of back taxes. She’s currently attempting to reopen her criminal case at the same time ICE has formal deportation orders for her forced removal. It’s a complicated legal situation that left Ingrid little choice but to enter sanctuary.

On Nov. 28, 2016 she moved into the room at Mountain View Friends Society with her 1-year-old son Anibal. She hopes her stay of removal is approved through ICE so she can attend the spring court date for her criminal case, without fear of deportation.

“It was really a months-long process, the decision to enter sanctuary, because I knew once I entered sanctuary I’d be here for an indefinite amount of time,” she says. “It could be weeks or months or years before I’m able to leave the building.”

Every day goes by more or less the same. She wakes up and makes breakfast for Anibal, people come to visit and Ingrid practices her English with them. She and Anibal eat lunch and play, before the toddler goes down for an afternoon nap. She tries to exercise everyday, using YouTube videos or a stationary bike at the church. As evening rolls around, the two have dinner and watch a little TV before going to bed. Most evenings, her partner, Anibal’s father, comes by to say good night. When her older son doesn’t have school the next day, he spends the night with his mom and younger brother.

But Ingrid isn’t looking for pity. “This is a choice I made, and a sacrifice I’m making to be with my kids. This is really an opportunity for me to continue to be with my family,” she says. “It is painful to be in sanctuary because of the changes in our lives, but I just focus on the love that I have for my children and the fact that we belong together. That clears my mind.” 

Across town, after only a week at First Unitarian, Jeanette faces similar challenges.

“Since I began creating sanctuary, I’ve been preparing myself mentally,” Jeanette says. “Since I went public with my case (in 2009), I’ve been delivering this message, saying there is a problem, but putting a voice and a face to it, telling people laws are being violated.”

When Jeanette still hadn’t heard from ICE by 8:30 a.m. the morning of her ICE check-in, she decided not to go, sending her lawyer and pastor in her place. Later that afternoon, she received word her stay of removal extension had been denied. Although Polis had once again introduced his private bill for Jeanette on Jan. 30, under the Trump administration it did little to help.

“It shows that Donald Trump, in his battle against immigrants, is willing to even trod over congressional prerogative because traditionally when a private bill is introduced the executive branch honors that and the last two times we introduced it a stay was granted,” Rep. Polis says. “It really shows his fervor of breaking families apart.”

While Polis’ team and countless other advocates continue to petition for a stay of removal while Janette’s U Visa application is processed, she is bracing herself for a long sojourn at First Unitarian.

“I have no idea how long I’ll stay,” she says. “I’m thinking I could be here for the full four years that Trump’s going to be president.”

For now, she tries to stay busy, filling her days in the church basement planning events and coordinating forums to help educate the undocumented community about their rights, as well as bring the larger community into the conversation through more visible marches and awareness campaigns.

“For 20 years, I’ve worked almost everyday, so I’m trying to look at this as a sort-of vacation,” Jeanette says. “But it’s more of a forced vacation.”

Even so, she says she treasures the time with her four children and grandkids when they are able to come visit.

“The difference is that if I am sent back to Mexico they won’t be able to hug me and make me feel better,” Jeanette says, tearing up for the first time in our conversation. “I want to empower other families to do the same, to tell them if I can do it, you can do it too.”

The Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition is currently working with more than a dozen individuals currently facing deportation, eight of whom will have their stay of removals expire over the next six months. According to Piper, more than 60 faith communities have approached the coalition since the election, asking how they can get involved. But, for now, there are no other host congregations besides the two occupied by Jeanette and Ingrid. “We are facing a critical moment,” Piper says. “We’ve been in conversation with immigrants in the community and faith communities about the need for more space and also maybe a need for a different strategy, although I don’t know what that will be.”

For now, sanctuary is a relatively short-term solution to a broken immigration system, aimed at leveraging community support against immigration authorities’ discretionary powers. Around the country more than 800 congregations have declared themselves sanctuaries for immigrants, with only a handful of people currently living in these churches. Although there is nothing that explicitly prevents ICE from obtaining a warrant and forcibly removing individuals from places of worship, they are considered sensitive locations by the agency and therefore not places for immigration enforcement priority unless there is an immediate security threat involved. However, in the age of President Trump, even this policy has come into question.

“We hope that the president continues to honor the sanctuary status of churches,” Rep. Polis says. “And doesn’t violate that as well.”

Interviews with Jeanette and Ingrid were conducted through an interpreter.

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