UCC pastors help Colorado-based immigrant facing deportation
Written by Emily Schappacher August 5, 2013
The Rev. Anne Dunlap, second from right, and Jeannette Vizguerra, third from right, at last month's vigil at the Immigration Detention Center in Aurora, Colo.
Update - Aug. 12: On Aug. 8, Vizguerra was released from detention and granted a stay of deportation until Jan. 2014. She is currently back home with her family and community. She will continue to fight to have her deportaiton case closed. According to Dunlap, Vizguerra's case is considered a "low priority" and should be successfully closed.
"I'm so glad to share this news," Dunlap said. "Thank you all for your support."
Update - Aug. 7: Vizguerra's supporters held a demonstration outside of the Aurora, Colo., Immigration and Customs Enforcement office beginning at 3 p.m. Aug. 6. The demonstration was followed by a 24-hour hunger strike that still continues. Activists await word about whether Vizguerra will be deported today, Aug. 7.
Update – Aug. 6: The Rev. Anne Dunlap got word Aug. 5 that Vizguerra's stay of deportation has been denied. The Immigration Detention Center in Aurora, Colo., typically deports people on Wednesdays and Fridays, so Vizguerra could be deported back to Mexico as early as Aug. 7. Dunlap and Vizguerra's other supporters are currently mobilizing to determine next steps.
"She can be deported at any time now," Dunlap said. "It's quite likely she will be deported this week away from her family and her community."
On the first Monday of every month, a group of immigrant-rights advocates holds a vigil outside the Immigration Detention Center in Aurora, Colo., to show support for those detained and for the families torn apart by the country's broken immigration system. A regular presence at these events is Jeannette Vizguerra, an immigrant mother of four and community activist who has been fighting to stay in the United States since being arrested for a traffic violation in 2009. But this month, Vizguerra will not be participating. Instead, people will be praying for her during the Aug. 5 vigil as she sits inside the center after being arrested without cause or warning on July 24.
"She went to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to check in with her deportation officer like she is supposed to do as part of her supervision program, and they arrested her on the spot – no one knows why," said the Rev. Anne Dunlap, minister of Communidad Liberacion, a bilingual ministry of Mayflower United Church of Christ in Aurora. "I imagine it's going to be very poignant and painful that at last month's vigil she was with us and this month she is on the inside. This is our friend who was trying to do the right thing and now she is where she is."
Dunlap is one of several UCC pastors involved in Vizguerra's struggle. In addition to the monthly vigils, the group has also written letters, organized petitions, made phone calls, attended hearings, and gathered the support of government leaders like Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Representative Jared Polis (D-Colo.). But so far these efforts have done little to determine why Vizguerra was arrested this time around, how long she will be detained, and what her future holds. It was a full 24 hours before anyone even knew where she had been taken after her recent arrest, Dunlap said, adding that there are a number of county jails with connections to ICE to which she could have been taken.
"It's very scary what happens to people when they are detained," Dunlap said. "For us as clergy folk, being that presence in the community that is really grieving for the detention of our friend and this great mother to her wonderful children and spouse to her husband is important. We will just keep doing what we need to do here."
Vizguerra and her husband no longer felt safe in Mexico after he was held up at gun point three times while working as a bus driver. They have lived in Colorado with their four children, three of whom were born in the U.S. and are American citizens, for the past 15 years. She and her husband, a cancer survivor, owned a moving and cleaning company, but Vizguerra has since taken on more jobs to help pay for his medical bills. It was on her way from one job to another that Vizguerra got pulled over for driving with expired tags, was arrested and put in an immigration detention center. After being released, she fought her case in court, lost, and then filed an appeal.
While waiting for her appeal, which could take up to two years, Vizguerra's mother, who she hadn't seen since leaving Mexico 15 years earlier, became terminally ill. After much debate, Vizguerra decided to visit her in September 2012, but her mother died before Vizguerra could make it there. She was caught by border patrol agents as she was crossing back into the U.S. in April and was taken to a detention center in El Paso, Texas, until her lawyer convinced ICE officials to release her under supervision. It was during one of these mandated supervision visits that Vizguerra was arrested.
"Jeannette faced the decision of, 'Do I stay here with my family or go home to see my dying mother who I haven't seen in years?'" Dunlap said. "To make that so difficult is just one example of how inhumane our system is and the choices these people are forced to make."
In addition to her multiple jobs, Vizguerra is an active community advocate. She has shared her story with UCC congregations and other groups, has worked for Service Employees International Union as a labor organizer, and volunteered with her children's schools, the Aurora Neighborhood Watch Program, and Rights for All People, an immigrant-led organization that advocates for equality. In 2011, she also helped Dunlap organize an emergency fund to help immigrant families pay for things like deportation fees, bonds, and even food and clothing.
For now, Dunlap has no idea what comes next for Vizguerra. While her lawyer works to get her released and granted a stay of deportation, Dunlap and other UCC clergy are urging people to sign a petition to stop Vizguerra's deportation, and continue to mobilize people into action. But for Dunlap, something significant needs to be done to change the immigration system and put an end to the 1.7 million deportations that have occurred under the Obama Administration and reunite the millions of families affected by these policies.
"My hope would be that the people who have the power to change these laws would listen to stories like Jeannette's – the nearly 2 million stories at this point – and the families left behind," Dunlap said. "To me this is just a harsh violation of human rights, and I will stand against this for as long as I have to."