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She refuses to go silently
From the start, Elvira Arellano knew she had to stay quiet.
After illegally crossing the border from Mexico, she kept her head down. Even her bosses didn't know who she really was.
Arellano sometimes thought she heard footsteps at night and awoke with thoughts of la migra, the immigration authorities. Then, one day in December 2002, they did knock on Arellano's door and arrested her.
She was working as a cleaning lady at O'Hare International Airport at a time when U.S. authorities worried that terrorists were trying to infiltrate the aviation system. They moved to deport her, raising the prospect that she would have to take her child--a U.S. citizen--away from medical treatment here.
Ever since, Arellano has tried a new approach: Be as loud as possible.
Arellano, a 30-year-old single mother from Pilsen, has become one of the nation's most visible advocates for undocumented immigrants. She now leads an organization of families who could be separated by deportation--a group that will be featured at an immigrant-rights convention on Navy Pier Saturday.
Arellano is a problematic champion. She knowingly broke the law, twice coming into the U.S. illegally. At a time when many Americans can't afford health care, Arellano received a temporary visa until August to stay with her son while he is treated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
That has made her a lightning rod for critics, who feel she embodies much of what is wrong with immigration in the U.S., from lax law enforcement to a sense of entitlement among illegal immigrants.
But supporters believe the complexity of her tale--a woman who is a caring mother, a contributing member of society and a lawbreaker--illustrates that immigration reform isn't black-and-white.
"I want to show them that just because we don't have papers doesn't mean we aren't human beings," Arellano said.
Arellano's journey began when the economy collapsed in her home state, Michoacan, after the 1994 peso crash. Like many women, Arellano went to work in a maquiladora, a factory on the U.S. border, making only $5.60 a week.
That wasn't enough. She crossed the border, was caught and deported, and then tried again. Arellano said she slipped through the turnstile of a border crossing near Mexicali, Calif., in 1997 and headed for Washington state.
She worked as a baby-sitter and had a son, Saul. She and the boy's father split up and she moved to Chicago in 2000, where she took the job at O'Hare.
That day in 2002, immigration agents came to her door as part of Operation Tarmac, a nationwide sweep of illegal immigrants working at airports. Arellano faced the prospect of jail time because she entered the country after being deported.
Quiet as she was, Arellano was one of the few workers willing to speak at a news conference following the arrests, making the case that those arrested were not terrorists.
She quickly became the go-to source for media and activists.
Even her allies say she was in over her head. She cried on the way to public events. At rallies, she sat nervously and quietly with her son on her lap. After a radio interview, she was so star-struck that she shyly asked the disc jockeys for their autographs.
At one point, she thought of giving up and returning to Mexico. A friend told her she would never forgive herself.
Arellano came to agree, saying, "If they are going to send me to jail, let them send me. But I am not going to go away quietly."
Instead she became a citywide cause, especially in the Hispanic press, as supporters held rallies before her impending deportation. Immigrant advocates realized that Arellano's story was, in some ways, typical. Her son, Saul, is one of an estimated 3 million U.S. citizen children who have at least one parent living here illegally.
Driven by the public outcry, members of Illinois' congressional delegation introduced a private bill in 2003 that gave Arellano a temporary visa to care for her son.
Her story might have ended there. Instead, Arellano and her allies--churches, immigrant advocacy groups and labor unions--seized on the broader power of her tale. Having a temporary visa, she could speak openly and without fear of retribution about the experience of being an undocumented immigrant.
But Arellano said she was hurt by criticism that she was selfish and cared only about her case. Those suspicions, and the pleas from other families facing similar circumstances, spurred her to move beyond her own story and become a leader in the fight for immigration rights.
Since then, she has spoken at rallies from the Capitol in Springfield to Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam headquarters on the South Side. She confronted Mexican President Vicente Fox during a town meeting in Cicero, pressing him to intervene for other families.
One supporter, Joshua Hoyt of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said: "There are times when a pragmatic person might pull their punches and not speak truth to power. I haven't seen Elvira pull any punches yet. Not once."
The group she heads, about 30 families who call themselves United Latino Family, has persuaded U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) to sponsor a bill that would grant them legal status to avoid separating their families.
On a recent chilly night at a Pilsen community center, Arellano greeted children with hugs as families slowly filed in for an organizing meeting. After lighting a white candle next to a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Arellano led the families in quietly saying the rosary.
"I want to offer my mystery for the president of the United States," Arellano said in Spanish, "so that God will open his heart to see the suffering that is happening with our families."
But Arellano and other activists outrage critics of illegal immigration, who say they have no legal or moral right to sympathy or assistance.
Critics say immigrants like Arellano might have compelling personal stories, but they should not overshadow the economic and social damage caused by illegal immigration.
"Illegal aliens feel that they have the right to demand the same things as a citizen," said Carol Helm, founder of Immigration Reform for Oklahoma Law, which encourages members to report illegal immigrants appearing in the media. "They are trampling on our rule of law."
Arellano has even raised eyebrows among some immigrant advocates who favor a more moderate approach. She is seeking a presidential pardon for families that face separation.
Arellano said her next step is to encourage a national movement of families, and she has already received calls of interest from several states.
Now she doesn't mind that people know her name or stop her on the street--on one condition: "I don't want people to look at me and say, `Oh, poor thing. They want to deport her,'" Arellano said. "I want people to see a simple mother, an undocumented person, who fought."