Sophia Tareen, AP, August 15, 2007
A woman who has come to personify the struggles of illegal immigrant parents says that for the first time in a year she will venture beyond the walls of the church that has protected her from deportation.
Elvira Arellano took refuge inside Aldalberto United Methodist Church on Aug. 15, 2006, and has lived there on the second floor with her 8-year-old son Saul, who is a U.S. citizen.
She hasn’t left the church for fear of being sent back to Mexico and separated from her son.
She was to announce Wednesday that she plans a Sept. 12 trip to Washington to lobby Congress for immigration reform, according to the Rev. Walter Coleman, pastor of the church and longtime Chicago political activist.
It’s not clear how she’ll get there, but she likely won’t be flying, Coleman told The Associated Press Tuesday. He and others worry Arellano will be arrested, but she plans to go anyway.
“I will go with my Bible and my son and I will read to him from the Holy Scriptures as I do every day,” Arellano said in a statement sent Tuesday to The AP. “If this government would separate me from my son, let them do it in front of the men and women who have the responsibility to fix this broken law and uphold the principles of human dignity.”
Whether Arellano will continue her sanctuary at the church is unclear.
The 32-year-old says she has been too comfortable there and needs to “join the struggle” outside.
Arellano came illegally to the U.S. in 1997. She was deported shortly thereafter, but returned and worked different jobs, including childcare. She moved to Illinois in 2000 because she had friends in the Chicago area and took a job cleaning planes at O’Hare International Airport.
She was arrested in 2002 at O’Hare and later convicted of working under a false Social Security number. She was to surrender to authorities last August, but asked instead to take refuge at her church.
She has gone on hunger strikes, written dozens of letters and sent her son with other activists to Mexico and Washington to talk to legislators. She’s been interviewed by reporters from across the globe.
But she says she doesn’t consider herself a symbol.
“I am a single mother who has a child who’s an American citizen,” she said recently in Spanish.
Arellano said she has a simple goal: to stay with Saul, who she said should be guaranteed rights as an American citizen.
“He knows this as his country,” she said.
Arellano has no case pending to become a legal resident.
“I’m hoping for an immigration bill to pass,” she said.
Arellano knows she could be arrested during next month’s planned trip. If that happens, she said, “they’d find me praying.”