DeGette meets with sanctuary immigrant in Denver, talks reform

Author: Marianne Goodland - May 29, 2018 - Updated: July 11, 2018

sanctuaryU.S. Rep. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, met Tuesday with Araceli Velasquez, an undocumented immigrant living in sanctuary in the Park Hill United Methodist Church. (Photo by Marianne Goodland/Colorado Politics)

Kevin Velasquez is 18 months old. He’s a lively little boy who runs around at warp toddler speed — and he did just that Tuesday within the walls of the Denver church where his mother has sought sanctuary from deportation.

Kevin’s infectious smile and antics briefly stole the spotlight away from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, who was at Park Hill United Methodist Church to meet with Kevin’s mother, Araceli.

Araceli Velasquez lives in the church — literally. She’s given up her freedom to fight efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport her back to her native El Salvador. And if changes don’t come soon to the nation’s immigration policy, her husband, Jorge Sr., may not be far behind. Deportation could separate the family of five that also includes Jorge Jr. and Christopher.

DeGette met with the Velasquez family Tuesday, as well as with activists from the American Friends Service Committee, to discuss ongoing efforts to reform the nation’s immigration policy. DeGette focused her comments on a discharge petition currently working its way through Congress that could be the first major step in those reforms.

DeGette explained to the crowd of about 120 that Congressional rules allow only the Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to decide which bills make it to the full House of Representatives for debate and vote. A discharge petition would bypass the speaker’s refusal to allow an immigration bill to the floor, DeGette said. So far, the petition has 213 signatures; it needs only five more to force the matter.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, was among the first dozen members of the House to sign onto the petition on May 9, and the first from Colorado’s seven-member delegation. DeGette signed it the next day, followed by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, and Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada. A total of 190 Democrats (out of 192 total) and 23 Republicans have so far signed onto the petition.

According to Roll Call, House Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said last week he believes those last five signatures will happen. Once the magic number is reached, the House would take up a “Queen of the Hill”  rule. DeGette said this would mean that the House would vote on five measures on immigration reform. The one with the most votes would move on. It’s risky, she said, because two of the bills are abhorrent to Democrats, including a bill that would fund the Trump administration’s border wall. Democrats support two others, she said, which could include reforms to the nation’s visa system and provide a solution for the 1.8 million Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to this country as minors who now seek legal residency status.

Colorado’s three other Republicans — Reps. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, Ken Buck of Greeley and Scott Tipton of Cortez — have yet to make a decision on whether to support the discharge petition. DeGette told Colorado Politics that she hopes Buck and Tipton will sign the petition, given the prevalence of industries in their districts that rely on immigrant labor. Tipton’s district includes most of the state’s major ski resorts; Buck’s district includes the state’s most productive agricultural area.

The reforms could also keep families together who are being separated by deportation, DeGette said. That’s the big issue for the Velasquez family: The three sons were all born in the United States and are U.S. citizens. Araceli has exhausted all her legal remedies and now has a final order of deportation. According to Jennifer Piper of AFSC, Jorge Sr. was granted an 18-month temporary protected status in 2001 which has been renewed every 18 months since then. But the Trump administration has now canceled that program, and when Jorge Sr.’s temporary status expires in August 2019, he, too, will be targeted for deportation.

“You really feel the time passing when you have small children,” Piper explained. The hardest part for Araceli is missing some of the milestones for her oldest son, such as his first day of school and preschool graduation, she said. And she also pointed out that Kevin has lived in the church since he was eight months old and learned to walk there.

Entering into sanctuary — whether in a church, school or hospital — is an act of civil disobedience, as well as an effort to keep families together, Piper explained. The person has made a commitment to give up their liberty in order to obtain justice, she said.

DeGette also responded to questions about recent reports that the Trump administration has “lost” 1,475 undocumented children, an admission made last week by Steven Wagner, a deputy with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Administration for Children and Families.

Wagner testified before Congress last week that the department had no information on the whereabouts of 1,475 children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on their own, not accompanied by adults. Those children were turned over to so-called “adult sponsors.” Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said during testimony that eight children had been given to human traffickers.

DeGette had no answers on what Congress could do to find those missing children other than using its “bully pulpit” to put pressure on ICE.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.