Undocumented mom facing deportation takes sanctuary in Denver church

DENVER -- Activists are planning a rally in Washington to show support for an undocumented immigrant who has taken refuge at a Denver church while she fights to remain in the country.

Jeanette Vizguerra, a mother of four, was scheduled to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Wednesday morning.

She wanted to extend the stay on her deportation order, which expired last week, while she continues the application process for a special visa. The extension was denied when she failed to show up for the meeting.

Activists called it "an act of resistance" and referred to Vizguerra as a "longtime leader in the immigrant and labor movements."

It comes after the detention and deportation last week of another mother, Guadalupe García de Rayos in Arizona, who was appearing for her routine ICE check-in.

Vizguerra faces separation from her American-born children, the youngest of whom is 6 years old.

Vizguerra's attorney, Hans Meyer, appeared in court for her, saying she probably would have been taken into custody if she appeared. She is taking sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society of Denver (1400 Lafayette St.) while she plans her next legal move.

You can watch Vizguerra's statement here.

The rally in Washington, D.C. was scheduled to take place at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at 4:30 EST.

All come to look for America

Vizguerra lives in Denver with her husband and three youngest children -- Luna, 12, Roberto, 10, and Cury, 6. They were all born in the US.

Her eldest, Tania, also lives in Denver and has children of her own. She described Vizguerra as the "backbone" of the family.

Vizguerra came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1997 with her husband and Tania, who was 6 at the time.

Tania said she lives in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which lets undocumented people brought to the country as kids attend school and work.

Like thousands of immigrants, the family came in search of a better life. Vizguerra's husband had been kidnapped three times during his work as a bus driver in Mexico City, they said.

For the first decade, Vizguerra and her family experienced the regular worries and paranoia of many of America's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But she and her husband stayed under the radar, working odd jobs and avoiding trouble.

Vizguerra's battle to stay in the country started in 2009.

"I was leaving work. It was about 10:20 at night. About a block away from my work, I saw a patrol car parked," she said. "As soon as I drove by, the patrol turned on its lights and went after me, and I didn't understand why because I wasn't speeding."

Vizguerra was charged with not having a license or insurance and for having an expired license plate, but those charges were dismissed, court records show.

She also was charged in connection with what her lawyer, Hans Meyer, said was a job application on which she used a made-up -- not stolen -- Social Security number.

She pleaded guilty to attempted possession of a forged instrument. An ID theft and other similar charges were dropped, records show.

The case brought Vizguerra to the attention of immigration authorities, Meyer said.

Vizguerra, who counts housekeeper, janitor and house painter among some of the jobs she has held, spent the next 3 1/2 years fighting and appealing various orders to deport her from the U.S.

As she pressed her own case, she also took on the mantle of immigrants' rights activist, fighting for other families hoping to cement their own tenuous roots in the U.S.

Return to Mexico

In September 2012, Vizguerra was in the midst of appealing a voluntary departure order under which an undocumented person is allowed to arrange his or her own departure from the U.S. within a certain time frame.

Then she learned her mother was terminally ill.

Vizguerra hadn't seen her mother since she left Mexico 15 years earlier. If she wanted to be by her mother's bedside, Vizguerra would need to abandon her appeal. She wouldn't be able to return legally to the U.S.

She decided to chance it.

"It was a very difficult decision," she said.

Her mother died while Vizguerra was flying home. Soon, her heartbreak was compounded.

"I was there (in Mexico) for seven months, and that was extremely difficult. It was very difficult for me to be without my children," she said. "My children had to stay in here in the U.S. with their father, and it was very difficult for them, especially for our youngest, Cury, who was only a year and one month at the time."

A community rallies

Vizguerra spent much of her time in Mexico City trying to figure out a way to reunite with her family. She eventually paid a smuggler to sneak her across the border, but she was picked up by Border Patrol agents near Presidio, Texas.

She was detained for several weeks. That's when the Colorado immigrant community Vizguerra had worked so hard to serve mobilized for her.

Supporters showed up in Texas to demonstrate outside the facility where she was being held. In Colorado, they lobbied politicians. Ultimately, they won a stay on her deportation.

The support hasn't wavered.

At her Wednesday morning appointment at the ICE office in Denver, Vizguerra had the backing from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, members of the First Unitarian Church in Denver and Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, who introduced a bill in Congress on Jan. 30 asking for Vizguerra to be given an immigration visa or to be granted the opportunity to apply for permanent residence.

"Jeanette Vizguerra's case is a perfect illustration of the broken system of immigration enforcement in this country," Polis told The Colorado Independent. "Countless stories like Jeanette's run contrary to our values as a nation and are one of the many reasons that we must reform our immigration system now."

But all the support might be for naught. Vizguerra points to the case of Garcia de Rayos, the Arizona mom.

Two women, similar circumstances

Garcia de Rayos and Vizguerra have a lot in common.

They both came to the U.S. illegally more than 20 years ago. They've both been checking in regularly with ICE for several years. And they both knew the expanded power given to immigration officers by President Donald Trump's executive order could affect them.

The Obama administration had prioritized expulsion of undocumented immigrants who threatened public safety or national security, had ties to criminal gang activity, committed serious felony offenses or were habitual misdemeanor criminal offenders.

Trump's order goes beyond that, laying out categories of undocumented immigrants who should be prioritized for removal.

Experts say the definitions include virtually every person in the country illegally and the orders give broad latitude to individual immigration officers to decide who should be detained for deportation.

"It made me really angry to see what happened to Guadalupe," Vizguerra said. "She's someone who's been reporting for regular check-ins with ICE for several years and hasn't had any problems. But I think more than fear, what it gave me was concern, worry for my children."

An option remains

Unlike Garcia de Rayos, however, Vizguerra is also appealing through another avenue of the immigration system: She is waiting on an application for a U visa.

The visa, as described by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, "is set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity."

Meyer, Vizguerra's lawyer, says Vizguerra qualifies for such a visa and that she included testimonials from law enforcement as part of her application.

Meyer said the U visa helps law enforcement tackle crime by encouraging undocumented immigrants to come forward and cooperate.

"It takes courage to have policy that reflects the nuanced reality," he said.

The night before

On Tuesday night, Vizguerra gathered with her family, friends and other supporters at the First Unitarian Church.

The church's pastor, Mike Morran, spoke for many when he summed up her predicament.

"I think it is unconscionable, and I think that it's immoral that Jeanette, who has been in this country for almost 20 years, who has three children who are American citizens, who has been fighting her case with Immigration and Customs Enforcement for five years," he said.

"I think it's unconscionable that she still has to live in fear of being ripped from her children and deported to a country she hasn't been in for almost two decades."