One year into Biden’s presidency, Colorado’s sanctuary seekers are still stuck in limbo

Hope fades for immigration reform progress under Democratic administration

By: - December 21, 2021 5:00 am

Ingrid Encalada Latorre cleans the room she shares with her children inside the church. Encalada lived for years in sanctuary churches throughout the Denver-Boulder area to avoid deportation has been granted a temporary stay of removal for a year, allowing her live without fear of deportation. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

Last month, Ingrid Encalada Latorre set out to hike the Mount Sanitas trail, a beloved Boulder trek that offers sweeping views of the Flatirons and foothills.

Encalada Latorre hiked with other immigrants, a group called Explorando Senderos de Boulder that sets out every weekend to explore the area’s outdoor recreation, a typical weekend activity for Colorado residents. 

Though she had lived in the city for nearly four years, it was her first hike in Boulder.

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That November hike, Encalada Latorre said in an interview, was one of the first times she was able truly experience the community she lives in, as she had been confined to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder to avoid arrest and deportation.

The Peruvian immigrant, who moved to the United States without documents in 2000, had been granted a stay of removal for one year beginning Nov. 1, meaning that she could now step out of the church she sought sanctuary in without fear. She could buy her own groceries, pick up her children from school, spend holidays with her Colorado-based family, venture out with friends — and hike.

“I don’t have to watch my back and be afraid of someone stalking me, ready to detain me. I feel like I can jump, like I can run,” she said through an interpreter.

Encalada Latorre is one of a handful of Colorado immigrants in recent years who have sought sanctuary, a practice through which undocumented people seek refuge in a house of worship to avoid detainment or deportation. It’s a tactic immigrants use when every other effort has failed, to buy time in hope of a breakthrough in their case.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines dissuade agents from making arrests at hospitals, schools and houses of worship.

“Taking sanctuary is where you go into a community of faith and you are making a public stand to be under the protection of the faith community to ensure that you can remain in this country, because you’ve exhausted all of your legal options,” explained Gabriela Flora, the program director for the American Friends Service Committee’s Denver immigrant rights program. 

“It’s a sacrifice. It’s a beautiful thing in that a faith community … says, ‘Our system is so unjust, that we are creating sanctuary for someone to come stay here because we know what is happening is not morally right,’” she said. “In a sense, there is incredible beauty in that.”

Ingrid Encalada Latorre, who lived for years in sanctuary churches throughout the Denver-Boulder area to avoid deportation has been granted a temporary stay of removal for a year, allowing her live without fear of deportation. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

Encalada Latorre said that many people assume immigrants seek sanctuary to hide from ICE, but that’s not the case. It’s an active, public call for justice and reform, she said. Immigrants enter sanctuary not knowing when they will be able to walk out of the church doors, relinquishing their independence because it is the only option.

“People who are in sanctuary are fighting for justice for all immigrants, not just for themselves,” she said. 

Sanctuary cases rise during Trump era

Jeanette Vizguerra-Ramirez moved from Mexico to the United States in 1997 after her husband faced multiple express kidnappings as a city bus driver. She has worked, lived and been a community activist in Colorado since then.

In 2012, Vizguerra-Ramirez visited her dying mother back in Mexico and was detained in El Paso upon her return. She was able to come back to Colorado after three months, contingent on monthly check-ins with ICE. Since then, she has received several stays of removal.

She noticed changes in her case, however, around the time former President Donald Trump took office in 2017, such as a lengthier process to evaluate her stay of removal petition. 

“My intuition told me that the day of my next check-in, I was going to be arrested,” Vizguerra-Ramirez said through an interpreter.

Instead of going to the check-in, she sought sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society of Denver, where she remained for 86 days.

She ended up receiving a two-year stay of removal, but entered sanctuary again in 2019 when she realized she would not get another stay. This December marks three years that Vizguerra-Ramirez has been in sanctuary. 

Protesters in front of the Senate side of the U.S Capitol urged Congress to pass the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in December 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“It’s difficult,” she said. “After being detained three times and losing my liberty, being in sanctuary kind of feels the same.”

The Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies and crackdown on enforcement — what Flora called “another level” to already harmful immigration laws — caused some immigrants without status in Colorado to seek sanctuary.

That included Encalada Latorre, Vizguerra-Ramirez, Sandra Lopez and Arturo Hernandez Garcia and Rosa Sabido, who currently lives in sanctuary at a church in Mancos. Those five immigrants had all lived in the United States for decades, but experienced increased fear of deportation during the Trump era. 

Encalada Latorre sought sanctuary right before Trump was elected, following several denials for a stay of removal. She had charges stemming from accidentally using a Social Security number that belonged to a real person in order to work. In the past four years, she has lived in three different churches, with the longest stay at her current church in Boulder.

She takes her independence seriously, and said the decision was difficult. 

“It was explained to me that my basic needs were going to be met, such as a bathroom, a room, a kitchen,” she said of preparing to enter sanctuary. “But the main thing that hurt me was I was basically going to let go of my independence. I wasn’t able to leave when I wanted to. I couldn’t work, couldn’t travel, couldn’t take my kids to school.”

She has been at Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder for close to four years and chose to remain even with the stay of removal, living in a multi-purpose room turned small studio apartment for her and her three children. The details of her and her family’s lives are everywhere in the church: a pink tricycle stationed outside the main sanctuary room, toy cars parked on common room tables and breakfast cereal stored in the communal kitchen. 

Encalada Latorre said that in addition to giving up her independence, it was hard to be so public with her immigration case, as is often necessary to seek sanctuary. She values privacy, but her decision has made her a face of the sanctuary movement in Colorado.

“The way I pictured it, it was a total prison and total jail that everyone knew what was going on in my case and in my life,” she said.

Optimism with new administration

When President Joe Biden entered office, immigrants and their advocates hoped there would be progress on immigration reform to create a path for people like Encalada Latorre and Vizguerra-Ramirez to obtain legal status. 

“There was a huge amount of relief in the immigrant community in not having someone in the White House spewing explicit hate and violence. I think there was a sense of optimism,” Flora, with AFSC, said. 

At the same time, however, she said that many of the Trump-era policies only built upon existing immigration law enacted by former administrations, Republican and Democrat alike. Biden, for example, was vice president during an administration that oversaw record numbers of deportations. There are decades of unfair immigration law to dismantle, she said.

President Joe Biden and Personal Aide to the President Stephen Goepfert walk along the Colonnade of the White House, Aug. 26, 2021, to the Oval Office. (Adam Schultz/The White House/U.S. Government Works)

Still, Democrats campaigned with promises immigration reform in 2020, so there was hope for a shift in the system.

Following Biden’s inauguration in January, Colorado’s Democratic congressional delegation sent a letter to the new administration asking for deportation orders to be lifted for Encalada Latorre, Vizguerra-Ramirez, Lopez, Hernandez Garcia and Sabido, the five sanctuary leaders from the Trump era. 

“Ingrid, Jeanette, Rosa, Sandra, and Arturo have lived in Colorado for decades, enriching our economy and adding value to our communities, and should not have been a priority for deportation,” the letter reads.

So far, Encalada Latorre has received a stay of removal under the Biden administration. In August, Rep. Joe Neguse introduced a bill on behalf of Sabido to rescind outstanding deportation orders, but it did not move past a committee referral.

“With the Biden administration, people assume things are better, everything is changed and people can leave (sanctuary). That assumption is wrong,” Vizguerra-Ramirez said. “People are stuck in the same situation.”

“I keep seeing political games in Washington, D.C., one of which is immigration reform,” she added. “They keep tussling back and forth.”

Democrats campaigned on immigration reform, and they have the power to do it. If they do not do it, that is a choice.

– Gabriela Flora, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Denver immigrant rights program

Some people, including Flora, were hopeful that meaningful immigration reform could be included in the Build Back Better Act. She advocated for a so-called registry date change in that legislation, which would allow people who arrived in the country before 2011 to apply for renewable employment authorization.

“Democrats campaigned on immigration reform, and they have the power to do it,” Flora said. “If they do not do it, that is a choice.”

But the Build Back Better plan faces an uncertain future because of opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin — and even with his support, the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, ruled in September that the registry date change should not be included in the reconciliation package. MacDonough issued another ruling last week blocking the latest attempt by Democrats to include immigration reforms in the bill.

That recommendation could destroy the Democrats’ chances to enact temporary protections for undocumented immigrants, though leadership has said they will still pursue a way to include immigration reform in the bill.

“This is the third time the parliamentarian has recommended against including immigration provisions in the Build Back Better bill.  We remind all our Senators that the parliamentarians’ opinions are not binding and do not outweigh the moral and political responsibility to provide true protections for our communities,” Lizeth Chacon, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, said in a statement. 

Ingrid Encalada Latorre, who lived for years in sanctuary churches throughout the Denver-Boulder area to avoid deportation has been granted a temporary stay of removal for a year, allowing her live without fear of deportation. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

Moving forward

For now, Vizguerra-Ramirez and her lawyer are exploring different legal avenues to get her legal status. She wants to eventually reopen her case and challenge the previous denial of her U Visa application.

In her activism, she is working to create a sanctuary environment that eliminates issues she has experienced or witnessed such as white privilege, toxic masculinity and poor relationships with church leadership.

Encalada Latorre said she is taking everything “step by step” during her stay of removal, but is focused on reopening her case to obtain a more permanent legal status such as a green card. She is optimistic that a 2019 pardon for her felony charge will make the application process for residency go smoother this time around.

“I want to let people know to never quit, to keep fighting because at the end of the tunnel there is always some light,” she said. “The United States is a country built on immigrants, and we’re here to keep dreaming and fight for our dreams.”

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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado. Wilson earned a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and as a student she reported on Congress and other federal beats in Washington, D.C.

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