A New Sanctuary Movement?
Undocumented Immigrant Finds Asylum in Chicago Church
by Lucas Freshman

On August 15, instead of reporting to the Chicago Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for deportation, immigration reform activist Elvira Arellano sought refuge in a small storefront church in Chicago's largely Puerto Rican Humboldt Park neighborhood. Arellano, a 31-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant, has been advocating for immediate and truly "comprehensive" immigration legislation for the past four years.

She has petitioned lawmakers, organized large marches and took part in a 22-day hunger strike this summer in support of undocumented workers. She formed La Familia Latina Unida (United Latino Family) with the help of Emma Lozano, long time immigrant rights activist and director of Centro Sin Fronteras (Center Without Borders).

La Familia advocates for immigration reform that does not include raids, deportations, interrogations and, most importantly, the separation of families which include a US citizen (most often a child). Of the estimated five million children of undocumented workers, 3.1 million are US citizens. Saul Arellano, Elvira's 7-year old son, is one of them.


Immigration and "Security"
Elvira Arellano entered the United States illegally in 1997 and was sent back. She returned days later, finding work in Oregon and Washington State, finally moving to Chicago in 2002 where she worked as a janitor at O'Hare Airport. She was arrested at O'Hare in the post-9/11 nationwide airport security crackdowns in which DHS agents combed airport records for potential "security threats."

Elvira and 37 others were arrested for falsifying applications, using false Social Security numbers and working without papers. Elvira was sentenced to three years probation and was to be deported.

Through "private bills" introduced by Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Chicago's 4th Congressional district and Senators Dick Durbin and Bobby Rush, she was granted a stay of deportation, working papers and a driver's license. It was during this time that Elvira met with lawyers at Centro Sin Fronteras - and Emma Lozano - and became active in the immigrant rights movement. Elvira led groups of families in similar situations on delegations to Washington, DC, California, Texas and all over the Midwest.

Each following year - 2004 and 2005 - her stay was extended, but in 2006, Durbin did not renew it, stating, "We cannot fix the injustices of this system with private bills; only comprehensive immigration reform can permanently remedy this situation."


Seeking Refuge
Elvira was ordered to report to DHS for deportation on August 15, 2006.

Instead, she came to Adalberto Methodist Church where she has been a member for four years and where she and Saul now share the second-floor two-room apartment. Here they found the sanctuary protection of Reverend Walter Coleman, a longtime activist who advocates strongly for the rights of the working poor in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood and participated in the 1980s "Sanctuary Movement" (supporting Latin American refugees seeking political asylum from repressive governments).

Coleman believes that Elvira's deportation order is direct payback for her activism and role in the recent immigrant rights marches. "This is part of a wave of repression against immigrants," he said. "This is retribution against her; they're obviously not happy with her and they're hardening their stance."

Elvira has taken this action not only for herself, but as Reverend Coleman states, "She represents the voice of the undocumented." She is openly defying the DHS in order to highlight the current deficiencies of US immigration law. "The only thing that I did not want was that my community would see them deporting me and [it would] let them down," Arellano says. "They would be saying, 'She has fought so much and was still deported.'"

Elvira Arellano's situation is similar to that of millions who come to the US to escape poverty and hardship. She grew up in Mexico's southeastern state of Michoacàn, a largely corn-producing area that was hit hard by NAFTA in 1995-96. Elvira says that the US began exporting corn which was chemically treated to grow larger than native Mexican corn. Soon the US began exporting beans and potatoes as well, and local farmers couldn't compete.

In addition, McDonald's insisted on larger potatoes for its restaurants in Mexico and began importing potatoes from Canada, limiting potato farming in Michoacàn. Elvira's father was a corn farmer, whose livelihood was destroyed by free trade. He began experiencing health problems that the family could not afford. In order to provide for her family, Elvira decided to immigrate to the US

"When I lived in Mexico - 9 years ago - I used to make $35 a week," she says. "It is not enough to survive, especially for a single mother." Here in the US, Elvira hopes to give her son better opportunities than are available in Mexico. "We knew that we would find a better job, a better quality of life. Here I can work a little and pay my rent, my bills, everything that I need, (and) my child gets a better education. The main reason why I want to stay is because of my son," Elvira says. "I want him to have the same opportunities that any US citizen has."


First a Moratorium
The collective goal of La Familia Latina Unida, Centro Sin Fronteras and the action at Adalberto Church is a moratorium on raids, deportations and arrests until Congress successfully addresses comprehensive immigration reform. However, the true callousness of the current administration's handling of immigration is seen in its disregard for the families wrecked by deportations, raids and arrests. Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) has said that they do not recognize Elvira's "sanctuary" and that they will arrest her at a time and place of their choosing.

It remains to be seen if ICE agents will in fact enter Adalberto Church and drag Elvira away. Church staff have vowed they will not let that happen, at least not without videotaping it. Perhaps though, through her action, other families facing separation will be inspired to stay long enough for them to remain legally once the laws have been changed. "I have to fight for a legalization that will not only help me but also millions of immigrants who are living the same situation," she says.

Organizations nationwide have shown immense support for Elvira. Among them, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the March 25th Committee, and the We Are America Alliance. Some - but not many - lawmakers have also expressed support. Along with Representative Gutierrez and Senators Durbin and Rush, vocal backing has been given by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojovich, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Cook County Commissioner Robert Maldonado.

In speaking about her son Saul, Elvira says that for him there is nothing strange about his life now. Since 2002 when she was escorted out of her house in handcuffs by 15 ICE agents with guns, this is how life has been. "For us a normal life like…any other family that involves barbeques on the weekends, that doesn't exist. For us a normal life is doing a flyer for the next protest, or getting funds for our trip to Washington." When asked if Saul will become an activist like her, Elvira replies, "He already is an activist. He gives out flyers, collects funds, when we have events…we make buttons and t-shirts for our campaign. He does the job any other organizer would do."

The next steps in her campaign include a lawsuit filed by Reverend Coleman on behalf of Saul saying that the deportation of his mother would violate his constitutional rights as a US citizen by forcing him to leave his homeland. Not surprisingly, federal prosecutors have filed to dismiss the lawsuit stating that Saul's rights would not be violated by his mother's deportation because he could stay here.


The Larger Struggle
In addition to efforts to militarize the Mexican border, there are other attempts to penalize undocumented immigrants. US Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA.) introduced legislation that would deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants (voiding part of the 14th amendment). The bill has over 100 Republican co-sponsors. Whether life will gets better or worse for undocumented immigrants will depend to a large degree on grassroots education and activism.

Tactically, the midterm elections are where immigration reform can be made or broken. La Familia Latina Unida (www.somosunpueblo.com/cflu_families.htm) has been urging people to register and vote. Elvira adds, "We can see that Republicans are more concerned with border security than legalization for our community. The Democrats have the spirit to help our community. If we can get a Democratic majority in Congress we can obtain a better legalization than the bill approved in the Senate."

"I did not imagine that this was going to become such a big thing. I just thought that Immigration would come to deport me and that would be the end of it. But up to today, they have not come and I am thankful." Hopefully, in the near future, millions of other families will be too.


Lucas, a Syracuse native, lives in Chicago. He has strong family ties to SPC.