Jeanette Vizguerra: Immigration activist and national leader

Jeanette Vizguerra is an immigration activist currently living in sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society of Denver. Although she has been living in the U.S. for 23 years, she faces a constant battle against deportation since February 2009 when she was caught driving without a driver’s license. The first thing she was asked when pulled over was whether she was in the country illegally; she was arrested on site for being a Mexican immigrant. A mother, she now lives an isolated life away from her children. 

First Unitarian Church of Denver
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

Vizguerra was put into detention for 34 days. She recalls the difficulty she faced at the time of her arrest. She had a five-year-old and a two-year-old at home, and their father was battling cancer. 

“For me it wasn’t so much that they were arresting me, I was more thinking what’s going to happen to my kids if their dad gets sicker,” said Vizguerra.

In Mexico, Vizguerra never had any contact with the police. However, as soon as she got to the U.S., her life changed because she did not have a license. After 34 days, Vizguerra was set free on a bond of $4,000. While she was in the detention center, she was able to see all the injustices there, including lack of decent medical care. Seeing that there were no groups supporting immigration issues, Vizguerra decided she needed to do something. 

When she left, Vizguerra began to speak out publicly about the abuses and conditions she had witnessed and experienced. She worked with the community for two years. In 2011, she came out more publicly to talk about her case and began gaining more attention. 

One year later, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Vizguerra traveled back to Mexico for seven months. She was detained in Texas for three and a half months upon her return back to the U.S. While detained, Vizguerra was organizing the community in Denver and in Washington D.C. She remained under close supervision and had to perform “check-ins” with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). At her first check-in, Vizguerra was told by an official that because she was going to be deported eventually, they ought to do it right away.

Jeanette Vizguerra
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

“They detained me in front of my kids,” said Vizguerra. “And it did not matter to [the officials] what pain and trauma the kids had.”

In the detention center, a quota deal by various private detention corporations was made that 140,000 beds would be filled around the country in exchange for money from the government. Vizguerra’s fight intensified with the community, inside and out. Her situation became more complicated, because she needed to raise money for her own as well as other people’s cases.

Vizguerra worked with the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, which now has 30 churches. These churches are considered “sensitive places” where the ICE cannot enter, and where people can remain safely while they continue to fight their cases.

In 2017, with the new administration, Vizguerra realized that everything was going to be more difficult. She was the first person in the country to go into sanctuary during the Trump Administration.

Vizguerra believes that sanctuary is a form of resistance against the system. Her fight to stay in the U.S. has drawn national attention, and she has been noticed by media around the world. She was named one of the 100 most influential people in 2017 by Time Magazine.

“My parents raised me to be very strong and independent and to follow my convictions,” said Vizguerra. 

Vizguerra describes herself as “a bird in a cage.” One of the most difficult aspects is that her children are not able to be with her, because they have to go to school. So, she only gets to see them on the weekends.

“Many times, people have to do this kind of thing and make sacrifices in order to open doors for others in the future,” said Vizguerra.

Now, she is a national leader—whenever someone goes into sanctuary, they contact her, because she has the most experience. Vizguerra knows that someday she will leave, but she is determined to keep fighting and keep resisting the system for the time being.

This upcoming May, Vizguerra plans to have a “week of action” where there will be a rally and a march conveying messages about the position that Jared Polis now holds. The main message is that the power is not in the capitol, but it is in the streets with the people.

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