In Sanctuary for Over a Year, Araceli Velasquez Pushing to Reopen Asylum Case

In Sanctuary for Over a Year, Araceli Velasquez Pushing to Reopen Asylum Case
Courtesy of Araceli Velasquez
Araceli Velasquez, who has lived in sanctuary at a space shared by two religious institutions in Denver since August 2017, is pushing for the Department of Justice to reopen her asylum case.

Last week, Velasquez filed a motion to reopen her case with the Board of Immigration Appeals. If the motion is granted, she would be able to at least temporarily leave the basement of the space shared by Park Hill United Methodist Church and Temple Micah, which is where she and her family have taken sanctuary from federal immigration law enforcement agents.

"What we ask is simply that the court reopen her case of asylum so she can come home and be with us. She is seven months pregnant, and we want her to return home to have our child," Velasquez's husband, Jorge, said at an April 24 press conference outside of the Denver Immigration Court. The Velasquez family has a home, but Jorge and the kids typically spend nights with Araceli in the church.

Since 2010, Velasquez has been fighting to be granted asylum in the U.S. after arriving from her home country of El Salvador via Guatemala and Mexico when she was nineteen.

In Velasquez's initial court proceedings, an immigration judge determined that her fear of returning to El Salvador was credible. Velasquez testified that she would be hurt or killed if she returned.

With the threat of imminent deportation staved off, Velasquez settled into life in the U.S. She's remarried and has three young boys, with a fourth on the way.

Jorge is also from El Salvador and holds Temporary Protected Status, a special categorization for an estimated 200,000 Salvadorans that is set to expire in September 2019.

Although she had been raising a family in the U.S., Velasquez lost her asylum case. Contradicting the finding of the first judge, a second immigration judge said that Velasquez's testimony lacked credibility. Velasquez tried to appeal, saying that her claims were credible and that any inconsistency in her testimony was due to confusion, ambiguous questions or erroneous translation. But that appeal was denied in October 2015. (In a 2018 Westword article, an immigration-rights advocate said that Velasquez lost her asylum case because her lawyer at the time wasn't prepared.)

In July 2016, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents came to Velasquez's home, intending to arrest her. But Velasquez was granted a year-long stay because she was pregnant. A year later, Velasquez requested another stay, which was denied. The next month, she entered sanctuary. ICE typically does not enter sensitive locations, like churches, for enforcement actions.

In May 2018, Congresswoman Diana DeGette visited Velasquez in sanctuary. "They need to be together at their home," DeGette said while standing next to the Velasquez family during her visit.

Velasquez isn't the only person living in sanctuary in Denver. Also fearing deportation, Jeanette Vizguerra, one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in 2017, re-entered sanctuary at the First Unitarian Society church in Capitol Hill in March; Vizguerra had previously spent 86 days in this same church in 2017. Aside from Velasquez and Vizguerra, two other women are also currently living in sanctuary in Colorado.

If this latest effort by Velasquez doesn't put a halt on her deportation order, the next possible solution might be a legislative fix. In 2017, Velazquez and three other women who were living in sanctuary at the time helped write a document called the People's Resolution, which would create paths to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants and those with Temporary Protected Status, among other calls to action surrounding immigrant issues. Advocates want the resolution to be introduced before Colorado's legislative session ends on May 3.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.