Chicago—Immigration activists around the country are taking up the cause of a single mother who invoked the ancient principle of sanctuary and took refuge in a Chicago church rather than submit to deportation to Mexico.
Elvira Arellano, 31, was holed up for a second day Wednesday at Aldalberto United Methodist Church with the support of the congregation’s pastor. With her was her 7-year-old son, Saul, an American citizen.
Federal officials said there is no right to sanctuary in a church under U.S. law and nothing to prevent them from arresting her. But they would not say exactly what they planned to do, or when.
The protest raised the spectacle of agents barging into a church and dragging her out.
“She is the face of the movement,” said Emma Lozano, executive director of the Chicago immigration-rights group Centro Sin Fronteras, who was at the church with Arellano.
In Phoenix, Martin Manteca of Mi Familia Vota said Hispanic activist groups were organizing a vigil in her support. Lozano said an event also was scheduled in Detroit.
Arellano also has attracted attention from political officials including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who has voiced his support. And Dolores Huerta, a leader in the effort to organize the nation’s farm workers, plans to come to Chicago to show her support, according to Huerta’s daughter, Alicia.
A few dozen supporters gathered at the storefront church, sitting in the pews and praying for Arellano. But the doors were not barricaded, and there were no apparent efforts to fortify the church.
Arellano, who is president of United Latino Family, which lobbies for families that could be split by deportation, had been ordered to appear at the immigration office in Chicago at 9 a.m. Tuesday, but instead went to the church, where she is an active member.
She said that if authorities want her, they will have to come and get her.
“My son is a U.S. citizen,” she told reporters. “He doesn’t want me to go anywhere, so I’m going to stay with him.”
Legal experts agreed that the traditional doctrine that people are protected from arrest in a church is not recognized under U.S. law.
But Joel Fetzer, associate professor of political science at Pepperdine University in California, said: “If the government comes in, it’s going to look very jack-booted fascistic. It would look very bad.”
Arellano illegally crossed into the United States in 1997 and was deported shortly afterward. She returned within days, living for three years in Oregon before moving to Chicago in 2000. Arrested two years later at O’Hare Airport, where she was working as a cleaning woman, she was convicted of working under a false Social Security number and ordered to appear at the immigration office in Chicago.
Activists said her desire to come here to work and provide a better life for herself and her son illustrates why they believe the nation’s immigration laws must be changed.
“She is a leader in the movement who has made the issue of family unity the key issue in the question of the undocumented,” her pastor said. “That is the most sympathetic issue there is.”
Others are not so sure.
“I don’t think the immigration debate should be focused on a woman who … disregards an order,” said Carlina Tapia-Ruano, a Chicago lawyer and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Tapia-Ruano said she worries that Arellano’s story will be used by extremists on both sides of the issue and cited as an example “of how illegals come here to be in flagrant disregard of our laws, and I don’t think that’s true.”
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) has written a letter to President George Bush urging him to intervene on behalf of Elvira Arellano, an immigration activist who is is hunkered down at a west side church to avoid deportation to Mexico. In the letter, Gutierrez details Arellano’s son Saul’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and his need for continuing medical and counseling services.
Gutierrez introduced private relief bill for Arellano in April of 2005. In his letter he asks the President “to allow the legislation I introduced the opportunity to be addressed before you take action to deport this outstanding woman.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Tim Counts said Arellano is considered a fugitive who will be arrested and deported at a future time and date, regardless of where she is residing. “We have the authority to arrest anyone in violation of U.S. law anywhere in the United States.”
Comparing herself to civil rights legend Rosa Parks, Arellano she will stay at the church as long as it takes to obtain an extension, and is armed with video cameras to film a possible church arrest.
“If they come for me in this place they’ll have to face God. We have video cameras and we’ll show how the federals violate the house of God,” she said.