(RNS) — Three immigrants who have resided in houses of worship to avoid deportation were granted one-year stays of removal this week, a move faith-based immigrant rights advocates framed as a “Christmas gift” years in the making.
Among the immigrants is Jeanette Vizguerra, who has resided at First Unitarian Society of Denver since spring 2019. According to a statement from the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, Vizguerra, who also briefly entered “sanctuary” in 2015, was notified of her stay of removal via a phone call from Rep. Joe Neguse earlier this month.
“These last two years and 9 difficult months inside the sanctuary became more difficult still when the pandemic began, the churches closed, and I felt forgotten and isolated,” she said in the statement. “Neither the pandemic nor my deportation process have ended, but knowing that I am going to have a Stay of Removal was the best Christmas gift that will make my life less difficult. With my freedom I will be able to continue fighting easier.”
Coalition organizers said Vizguerra is now transitioning out of sanctuary and will move out of First Unitarian, without being under imminent threat of deportation for at least one year.
Two other immigrants who had previously stayed in sanctuary — Sandra Lopez and Arturo Hernandez García — also announced they were granted stays of removal at a news conference convened at First Unitarian on Wednesday.
“For me it is like a Christmas and New Year gift,” Lopez, who left sanctuary in 2019, said in a statement.
García, for his part, left sanctuary in 2015 and received a two-year stay of removal in 2017. But he once again faced deportation in 2019 under former President Donald Trump’s administration, prompting Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet to advocate on his behalf.
For García and others, a new formal stay of removal offers much-needed peace of mind. In a statement, he said he was “surprised” to learn about the stay, but believes it will help all three immigrants “continue fighting our legal cases and be able to be together with our families.”
Vizguerra is founder of Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, a local subset of the broader New Sanctuary Movement, which consists of faith communities that allow undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation to take refuge in their houses of worship. The tactic was used in the 1980s to aid Central American migrants who entered the U.S., but reemerged in 2014 under then-President Barack Obama, who deported around 3 million people during his presidency.
The approach exploded in popularity years later as part of a larger protest movement against Trump’s policies and rhetoric regarding immigration. It now encompasses hundreds of congregations nationwide and relies on an internal 2011 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo discouraging federal agents from raiding “sensitive locations” — namely, hospitals, schools and churches.
Churches and other religious groups that participated in the movement have attracted attention from various politicians: In January, Neguse sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to lift deportation orders on Vizguerra, Lopez and García, among others. It was signed by fellow Colorado representatives Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter and Jason Crow, as well as Sens. Bennet and John Hickenlooper.
“We believe you should use your legal authority to lift the deportation orders against Colorado’s sanctuary leaders — Ingrid Encalada Latorre, Jeanette Vizguerra-Ramirez, Rosa Sabido, Sandra Lopez, and Arturo Hernandez García — and exercise favorable discretion to grant stays of removal for these individuals so that they can keep their families intact, and be reunited with their neighbors and communities while Congress works with your administration on comprehensive immigration reform,” the letter read.
Other Democrats have drawn attention to the plight of people in sanctuary as well. Julián Castro visited a woman living in sanctuary at an Ohio church while running for president in 2019, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also spoke at a church offering sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant during her own presidential run.
Similarly, New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined Neguse during a 2019 visit to Ingrid Latorre, an undocumented immigrant who was living in sanctuary in Boulder. Latorre was granted a stay of removal in her case in November of this year.