DENVER (AP) — A woman who lived in Denver churches for three months to avoid immigration authorities and another Mexican immigrant arrested last month are among 30 immigrants who are being allowed to stay in the United States for two years as they fight to get legal status after getting help from members of Congress.
Jeanette Vizguerra (vihz-GEHR'-uh) left the First Baptist Church near the state Capitol on Friday surrounded by her children and supporters after winning the deportation delay following the intervention of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
Bennet filed bills to help her and Arturo Hernandez remain in the United States under a process that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently announced would be scaled back.
ICE has traditionally granted delays of deportation when a bill is introduced in Congress on behalf of individual immigrants. Those delays have sometimes extended for years as lawmakers reintroduced the measures. Few of the so-called private bills ever become law.
In a May 5 letter to lawmakers, ICE acting director Thomas Homan said the agency will now only consider holding off deporting immigrants with legislation pending on their behalf for up to six months with the possibility of one 90-day extension. The requests must now also have the approval of judiciary committee leaders.
Vizguerra and Hernandez were among 30 people who had bills introduced before May 5 and are being granted two-year deportation delays, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said in a statement Friday.
Bennet, who said Vizguerra and Hernandez should never have been targeted for deportation, criticized the change. "It is disappointing that the Department of Homeland Security has taken unilateral action to change the process for an already few number of private bills that are introduced," he said.
Hernandez's lawyer, Laura Lichter, said she thinks the 30 grandfathered people could be the last to get extensions under the new process, a last resort for immigrants facing deportation.
Speaking to the crowd while holding her daughter's hand, Vizguerra said she is happy to be with her family for Mother's Day. But she is sad that another immigrant, Ingrid Encalada Latorre, is still living in a Quaker meeting house in Denver because she's facing removal from the United States.
"My energy will be to fight for her," Vizguerra said in Spanish through an interpreter.
She first moved into the basement of the First Unitarian Church after skipping a check-in with immigration officials Feb. 15 out of fear they would deport her after previously granting delays as she pursued a visa given to crime victims. She later moved to the Baptist church.
Hernandez took refuge in a Denver church in 2014 and 2015 after coming to the attention of immigration agents for an assault charge he was eventually acquitted of. He left the church after ICE assured him he would no longer be a priority for deportation.
He was arrested by immigration agents on April 24, but later released after Bennet intervened. Hernandez was initially given a 30-day deportation delay before winning the two-year delay.