Though Jeanette Vizguerra was forced to take sanctuary to forestall deportation, she continues to fight for immigrant rights.
Situated between the glossy pages of grinning celebrities and smug politicians who were included in TIME Magazine’s 2017 100 Most Influential People publication is a photo of a woman who will not smile. Jeanette Vizguerra remained impassive in her portrait for the popular periodical because she has not been rewarded for her widespread influence. A fierce advocate for immigrant rights, Vizguerra’s life was turned upside down when she was forced to take sanctuary to evade deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials. Though she has been forced to operate from the safety of the First Unitarian Church of Denver, Vizguerra refuses to be silenced in her fight for justice.
“For being so vocal, for being an activist on a local and national scale, the Trump administration has tried to block my legal process, violating the first amendment,” attested Vizguerra. The mother of four and grandmother of three was one of the first undocumented Coloradans to raise the alarm bells about the despotism facing today’s immigrants. Consequently, she was also one of the first immigrants to take sanctuary. Faced with the option of being ripped away from her children—all U.S. citizens—or being confined to a local church, Vizguerra chose the latter. ICE officials do not currently detain immigrants within places of worship, so Vizguerra is able to remain in the country as long as she does not leave First Unitarian.
“In all of the years that I have been living in the country, I have fought for immigrant and labor rights. This is something that the government does not like,” contended Vizguerra. “It is all because I express my ideas, criticize the government, and talk about everything that happens inside the detention centers.” The immigration policy of the Obama administration classified individuals like Vizguerra—who has lived in America for over 20 years and has a family of American citizens—as a low priority for deportation, focusing instead on criminals. Under the Trump administration, however, the zero tolerance policy calls for the deportation of any immigrant without proper documentation. What’s more, sources including the Washington Post and Detention Watch Network have speculated that prominent immigrant advocates have been specifically targeted for repatriation in an effort to keep the community silent. Vizguerra’s work with Sanctuary For All and Abolish ICE Denver has placed her in the spotlight, demanding the attention of both sides of the immigration debate. “They want me to shut my mouth,” Vizguerra alleged. “I know that at any moment, if the laws in this country are just, they are going to let me stay because I have many reasons to stay.”
Vizguerra is fighting for more than just a court ruling; she is working to undo centuries of oppression. “My ancestors are indigenous natives to this continent. That is why I say that I have more of a right to be here than many who call themselves Americans.” The activist emphasizes how colonialism has altered the demographics of America. “This is our land,” insisted Vizguerra. “It is not the land of those who call themselves American. Their roots are European.” Vizguerra is particularly fierce about the celebration of Columbus Day, a holiday that has become notorious for honoring a man who contributed to the destruction of aboriginal cultures. Genocide, she attested, is nothing to celebrate. “We have to continue fighting against white privilege, white supremacy, and white paternalism,” Vizguerra charged.
Living in a country with such a toxic culture surrounding immigration has not been easy for Vizguerra. “They have this idea that because we are immigrants, we are ignorant,” she stated. “But the reality is that we are people who are accustomed to struggling, to fighting, and to surviving. So, I think that we have more abilities and qualities than people who were born in this country.” A nescience to the perils of crossing the Mexican-American border induces critics to believe that Latinx migrants are taking the “easy” route to relocating, but the U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that 7,216 people have died crossing the United States-Mexico border between 1998 and 2017. This statistic is even more disturbing when one considers the unfound bodies for which Customs does not account. Vizguerra is all too familiar with the dangers of making the infamous passage. In 2012, she returned to Mexico after the death of her mother. When the time came to return to her life in America, Vizguerra had to walk for several days, navigating mountains and deserts. She was sustained by the knowledge that she would see her children again. “For any father or mother who really loves their children, no sacrifice is going to matter,” Vizguerra intoned.
One of the immigration rights movement’s major concerns with the American immigration system is the privatized detention centers. While countries like Sweden and the Netherlands operate detention centers through central government agencies, the United States pays corporations to hold undocumented immigrants. According to federal government data, GEO Group and Corrections Corporations of America together detain a daily average of 15,000 individuals. In the fiscal year of 2017, GEO Group was paid $184 million in taxpayer dollars, while CCA received $135 million. “For them it is a business,” attested Vizguerra. “To be honest, [the immigration system] is trash. It does not matter to them that they have kids in jails. It does not matter to them to separate mothers and fathers from their children, to detain the kids separately from their parents in detention centers. For them, it only matters to generate money.” A report by the National Immigrant Justice Center described the current immigration process as a “failed system that lacks accountability, shields DHS from public scrutiny, and allows local governments and private prison companies to brazenly maximize profits at the expense of basic human rights.” It is only through the activism of individuals like Vizguerra that the malfeasance is recognized by the broader public.
Though this country’s distressing relationship with immigration has deep roots, there is still hope. Vizguerra maintained, “I fight because we can change laws; we can create fair legislation; we can close those detention centers so that they do not continue to profit off of the families—so that more families are educated not only on how to fight for their cases, but also how to fight against unjust laws in their life.” In a broader sense, Vizguerra is the pinnacle of an American: an individual unafraid to fight for liberty. She engages in conflict with the federal system—not because she hates her country—but because she loves it enough to fight for what it has the potential to become.