Updated: September 13, 2011 at 12:00 am
Jeanette Vizguerra, 39, is a mother of four, a taxpayer and a businesswoman. She is also one of millions who live in the U.S. without documents. After living in Colorado for 14 years, she’s facing the possibility of deportation.
“No one can understand what it possibly feels like to be in this situation,” Vizguerra said. “I’d like to go on contributing to this country and community.”
Vizguerra is one of tens of thousands of immigrants facing deportation after traffic stops and other minor encounters with law enforcement.
After hearing protests over the fact that half the 400,000 people deported each year have no criminal record, the Obama Administration recently announced pending deportations would be reviewed to concentrate the federal government’s resources on the most dangerous criminals. The administration said it would allow other immigrants, including with family and community ties, to remain in the U.S. and work legally.
It’s too soon to tell if the new policy will help Vizguerra, according to her lawyer, Bryony Heise. Since the announcement, prosecutors in Denver have closed a handful of deportation cases – but it’s not clear if they are setting a new pattern, Heise said.
Vizguerra’s tale begins in Mexico, where she faced a kidnapping attempt. Her husband Salvador worked as a Mexico City bus driver and was held up at gunpoint three times on the job. The couple determined it was too dangerous to continue living there, and decided to make their way to the U.S. to work and raise a family.
Too desperate to wait years in the hope of getting permission to immigrate legally, the journey to Colorado began on Christmas Day in 1997.
Vizguerra has since has built a new life in Colorado. Her oldest child, born in Mexico, is now 21, lives in Aurora and has obtained legal status. Her three other young children – 7, 5 and a baby 8 months old – are American-born citizens.
She owns a moving and cleaning company in the Denver metro area, and pays employees and taxes. Her husband makes wholesale deliveries.
Now they are worrying whether Vizguerra will be forced to leave and return to the world she escaped nearly 15 years ago. That would leave her three small children with their father, who has been treated for cancer and works long hours to feed the family. She won’t take the children back to the dangers of living in Mexico.
Last year, 71 percent of the 390,000 deportees were from Mexico, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Carl Rusnock. Although ICE says it concentrates on deporting the most dangerous criminals, 197,000 had had no criminal record. (Being in the U.S. without permission is a civil offense, not a crime.)
From the Colorado-Wyoming region, ICE deported 6,617 people last year. Of those, 2,170 did not have criminal records.
Vizguerra’s court journey began in February 2009. At about 10 p.m., she was driving home from work when she was pulled over by an Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputy for driving with expired plates on Parker Road in Aurora.
According to the police report detailing the incident, Vizguerra provided the arresting deputy with her Mexican Consular ID. The deputy, she says, asked her if she was in the country legally or illegally. The report indicates she told the officer she was “illegal.” In addition to her expired registration, she had no driver’s license or proof of insurance.
The deputy arrested Vizguerra, under what Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson says his department’s policy of detaining any driver without registration, insurance and a license.
Arresting her -- rather than ticketing her for driving without a license as the State Patrol had done just a week earlier -- brought her into the jail and to the attention of immigration authorities.
A Colorado law known as Senate Bill 90 (PDF) passed in 2006 and requires law enforcement to report to ICE any suspected illegal who is arrested for a crime.
Robinson says his principle is that “local law enforcement should never enforce immigration law. That’s the responsibility of the federal government that’s not being met.”
“With that said,” the sheriff continued, “once someone presents at our detentions facility, we have a responsibility to the community, and under state statute, to properly identify an individual’s immigration status, and then notify ICE if that individual is suspected to be without documentation.”
Critics contend the law forces people to live in the shadows.
“We feel like it blurs the boundary between who’s enforcing law, and who’s securing communities,” said Liz Hamel, an organizer for the Colorado immigrant rights group Rights for All People, which has organized several rallies in support of Vizguerra. “Local law enforcement are supposed to keep us safe,” Hamel said.
After Vizguerra was taken into custody, the police report says deputies found she had several forged documents, including social security cards, a Mexican Consular ID, a Permanent Resident Card, and a Colorado identification card. She was charged with felony identity theft because one of the social security numbers belonged to someone else. She pled guilty to a lesser charge -- misdemeanor possession of a forged instrument. She spent 23 days in jail.
But then she had to deal with immigration.
Vizguerra maintains that, “I never thought I would be caught in a system like this … I’ve paid my taxes and I am not a criminal.”
That is the crux of a key dispute in America’s immigration debate. ICE and the sheriff see Vizguerra’s misdemeanor conviction and call her and others like her a criminal. Pro-immigration activists say she is not a criminal, because she was not convicted of a felony. Using fake ID is necessary for an illegal immigrant to live, they say.
Vizguerra said that in addition to fighting for her own future, she wants to bring attention to the types of deportations that are happening every day. And, she’s had others fighting alongside her. At a July 13 deportation court hearing, 50 activists gathered outside the Denver Federal Immigration Courthouse in support.
“This isn’t a matter of justice in terms of federal law,” said Rabbi Joel Schwartzman. “Jeanette (Vizguerra] is no criminal.”
Hans Meyer, a Colorado immigration lawyer who is not representing Vizguerra, also said that it is too soon to know the effect of the Administration announcement on who is allowed to remain. But he said the new policy might not help Vizguerra because “for ICE, a crime is a crime. Anything more than driving without a license is a problem.”
Vizguerra’s next court hearing is Oct. 1.
Cara DeGette and Robert D. Tonsing contributed to this report.