DENVER — One speaker told of a harrowing border crossing intercepted by a drug cartel seeking hostages, later of attempts to free her teen daughter from detention in Arizona. Another, on a hunger strike, recalled the story of a detained friend and community leader.
Dozens of activists and supporters gathered at day-laborer immigration-rights center El Centro Humanitario here to describe what they see as the urgent need for United States lawmakers to rework federal immigration laws, which they say serve no one well, not immigrants, not business owners, not Republicans or Democrats.
“We need immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship and that keeps families together. We need immigration reform that includes and empowers women,” said Nancy Rosas, director of the women’s program at the center. She was surrounded by a crowd of supporters. Many wore “Fedoras for Fairness,” as part of a project hosted by the national women’s immigration reform coalition We Belong Together.
Kelly Castaneda from Peru, who has been in the United States for about eight years, described how she narrowly survived the trip that brought her here. She said every male member of her party was taken hostage along the border by prowling members of a cartel.
Castaneda now works as a housekeeper and, although she was detained by customs officials a year ago, her case was recently dropped through prosecutorial discretion — a case review process that has gained momentum as larger immigration-reform policy discussions have bogged down. Currently, Castaneda is working to free her daughter, from whom she had been separated for eight years. Castaneda’s daughter is 15 and was recently detained alone for several weeks in a facility in Phoenix.
“We’ve been together in Denver for two weeks, but she’s facing deportation procedures right now,” Castaneda said. “I left my country because of poverty, to attain a better future for myself, my siblings, my children. We cannot have society without unified families, without mothers and fathers.”
Laura Arant, a social worker specializing in post-trauma therapy, said she believes the country’s immigration policies are counter productive.
“When I see families split, I know what it does to the children. It’s damaging and results in all kinds of problems, including behavioral and learning issues.”
Judith Marquez spoke on behalf of immigrant mother and activist Jeanette Vizguerra, who is currently being detained at an ICE facility in Centennial. Vizguerra has been battling deportation since 2009, when she was arrested for driving without a license.
“At that time, she was racially profiled,” said Marquez. “The police pulled her over and asked ‘Are you legal or illegal?’”
Vizguerra was carrying falsified working papers at the time and has been in and out of court for nearly five years as a result, all the while working to advance the rights of immigrants, women and laborers.
“Jeanette was one of the first immigrants in Colorado to share the story of their deportation case and struggle in public,” said Marquez. “She’s dedicated more than a decade of her life to fighting for rights for immigrant laborers and communities. She’s a member of the [Service Employees International Union]. She’s a strong leader who organized Justice for Janitors and volunteered heavily with Rights for All People… She has spoken directly to legislators and to students in college classrooms to educate people about who immigrants are and how broken our system is.”
Marquez spoke with passion, but she appeared tired. She is currently on hunger strike, she explained, seeking a stay of deportation for Vizguerra.
Along with several other state and national lawmakers, Democratic Colorado U.S. Rep. Jared Polis has written in support of Vizguerra. He elaborated his position in an email to The Colorado Independent:
Jeanette Vizguerra’s case is a perfect illustration of the broken system of immigration enforcement in this country. Our government is focusing its limited resources on detaining and deporting an extremely dedicated mother and community figure who poses absolutely no threat to anyone around her. Jeanette was torn from her young, U.S. citizen children in front of their eyes, and it appears that ICE has refused to grant her even a limited amount of time to settle her affairs and move her family to her home country. Countless stories like Jeanette’s run contrary to our values as a nation and are one of the many reasons that we must reform our immigration system now.
Vizguerra is a resident of Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman’s district, who hasn’t weighed in on her case.
“We went to Rep. Coffman, but they haven’t yet confirmed what action they are going to take,” said Marquez.
Coffman’s office did not respond to the Independent’s questions regarding either Vizguerra’s detention or the immigration reform proposals currently being weighed on Capitol Hill.
“Basically our communities feel like it’s such a grave injustice that we need to disrupt business as usual for the detention center,” said Marquez. “If that means blocking the street so they can’t go about their business of separating families, we’ll do that.”