With a special allowance expiring, immigration activist Jeanette Vizguerra must fight again to stay in the country

Sen. Michael Bennet’s private bill that allowed Vizguerra to leave sanctuary is ending. Now the activist, once named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, is again fighting the possibility of deportation.
5 min. read
Jeanette Vizguerra speaks tearfully to supporters during a fundraiser for new legal representation in her deportation case, Feb. 1, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

In 2017, immigration activist Jeanette Vizguerra walked triumphantly out of a downtown church after 86 days avoiding deportation in sanctuary.

She and supporters chanted "¡Sí se pudo!" - "Yes she could!" - in a celebration that many felt, at the time, like her struggle to remain in the country had come to and end. But, like many stories of small victories in the U.S. immigration system, Vizguerra's fight has re-emerged.

She's been fighting a final deportation order since 2009, after she was caught driving with false documents. Since that time, Vizguerra has become a national celebrity within immigrants rights circles, and was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in 2017 while she was living in sanctuary. A month later, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced she had been granted a stay of deportation, which allowed her to return home in time for Mother's Day. That stay hinged on a private bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by Michael Bennet that expires next month. Vizguerra is now raising money to hire new lawyers and, she hopes, close her case for good.

Supporters raise their fists in support of Jeanette Vizguerra and, also, bail bond activist Elisabeth Epps, who is currently in jail. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

On Friday evening, supporters held a fundraiser at RiNo's Taxi campus to help Vizguerra secure new representation. Addressing the crowd through a translator, she said her former attorney, Denver lawyer Hans Meyer, "might not have capacity" to keep moving her case forward. So guests bid on photo prints by "movement photographer" Dave Russell and placed checks in a basket for her effort. The first photo sold to Nita Mosby Tyler, a social justice worker, who paid $750. Dana Miller, a community activist who put on the fundraiser, said they raised almost $9,000.

Vizguerra told Denverite her legal strategy will likely revolve around her request for a "U visa," a special allowance for people who have been victims of domestic violence or who witnessed crimes. She's been waiting for a decision on her application since she was living in sanctuary.

While massive backlogs in the federal immigration system have delayed many cases, Vizguerra suspects that the long wait on her decision is more of a personal attack. She said she expects her new attorneys will file public information requests to see if there's proof that the Department of Homeland Security has intentionally stymied her visa request. In 2017, then-Congressman Jared Polis visited her in sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society of Denver, and told a crowd of reporters that Vizguerra was being punished by a "rogue ICE official."

Polis also passed a number of private bills for Vizguerra during his time in Congress. While those earlier measures successfully granted her more time in the country, the acting ICE director in 2017 announced the agency would no longer honor private bills with stays of deportation.

Nita Mosby Tyler holds a print she bought to support Vizguerra's new legal fund. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Vizguerra fought back tears during the fundraiser as she told the crowd that she is more than an activist for immigrants rights.

"I've been in this fight for 23 years, working on labor rights, human rights, civil rights and immigration rights," she said.

But despite her ardent supporters and the coalitions she's worked with across the country, Vizguerra said she still struggles with her situation.

"I was feeling very emotional because I've been in this for a very long time and, oftentimes, despite being in community, I feel alone," she said. "Everybody always tells me I'm so courageous, that I'm so valiant to be out there, but it's been difficult."

But she added the turnout at the event brightened her spirits, especially since other families dealing with deportation orders were present. Among them was Carlos Blanco and his family, who are waiting until the spring for an update on his case.

Also in attendance was City Councilman Paul Kashmann, who told Denverite he's been following Vizguerra's story since he ran the Washington Park Profile newspaper. The city has been supportive of its immigrant residents with a legal defense fund to help people battle their cases and with large banners reading "Denver ♥️ immigrants" on the City and County and Wellington Webb buildings.

"She certainly has been one of the people that's elevated the discussion" in Denver and elsewhere, Kashmann said. "I've continued to support her in any way I can."

Vizguerra said one thing in particular has put a fine point on her family's current instability. Her eldest daughter, Luna, is turning 15 this month. While it's tradition to hold a big party for Latinas turning 15 - a quinceañera - Vizguerra said her family will likely have to skip an elaborate celebration. For now, every spare dollar will go towards her fight.

"A lot of these things are luxuries for people that are in immigration processes," she said.

This story has been updated.

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