Mexican lawmakers unite behind 7-year-old

Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — Seven-year-old Saul Arellano fidgeted with his lucha libre wrestling toys Tuesday as he walked through the halls of Mexico's Congress. Alongside him was the small retinue of U.S. activists who have helped make him a cause celebre of the immigration debate on both sides of the border.

The shy but persuasive U.S.-born son of a Mexican immigrant told his story to legislators in spare, American-accented Spanish.

"It's hard to talk to a 7-year-old," said Congressman Edmundo Ramirez. "But he's made it clear he doesn't want to be separated from his mother…. There are millions of undocumented families in the United States that are in the same position."

On Tuesday, the child lobbyist persuaded the factions in Mexico's divided Congress to unite behind his plea: They voted unanimously to ask the U.S. government not to deport his mother, Elvira, an illegal immigrant holed up in a Chicago church.

The saga of "Little Saul" (Saulito in Spanish) has captivated Mexico since he arrived here Sunday on a mission to draw attention to the plight of thousands of Latino families who could be divided by stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.

Interviewed Tuesday morning in the Televisa studio by Carlos Loret de Mola, one of Mexico's most famous TV personalities, Saul offered the poignant image of a child far away from home. His small body barely filled the swivel chair. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.

"Do you feel a little bit Mexican?" Loret de Mola asked.

"I don't know," the boy answered in Spanish. No se.

"How did you learn Spanish?"

"I don't know."

When Loret de Mola asked Saul whether he wanted to live in Mexico, the boy answered simply, "No."

"Why not?"

"Because over there in Chicago is where my school is, my friends," the boy said.

Saul's visits with Mexican lawmakers are the latest chapter in a story that began with Elvira's illegal border crossing and move to Washington state, where she gave birth to Saul. She later settled in Chicago, where she received a deportation order by mail three months ago.

In Chicago, New York and other U.S. cities, a growing "sanctuary" movement seeking to protect illegal immigrants from deportation has made Saulito and his mother its poster family.

The Arellanos are living above the rough-hewn wooden benches of Adalberto United Methodist Church, a storefront in a Puerto Rican neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. Between services, the front doors are usually padlocked.

"This is a fight we won't give up on," Elvira, a 31-year-old single mother, said in Spanish. "My son is an American citizen, and he deserves to have his mother by his side."

There are at least 3.1 million children like Saul in the United States, with one or more parents in the country illegally, according to a 2006 report released by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Arellano said her trouble began in December 2001 when she was arrested and later convicted of fraudulently using a Social Security number to land a job with a cleaning crew at O'Hare International Airport.

After several extensions that allowed her to stay, and a failed legal appeal, she was told to report for deportation proceedings on Aug. 15.

"I could have run, taken Saulito to another town, found another Social Security number and another job," Elvira said. "I got tired of running and hiding. I wanted a better life for us, even if it meant that we'd both have to make sacrifices."

A somber boy who dreams of becoming a firefighter, Saul has traveled to Los Angeles, visited the White House twice to deliver letters to President Bush and spoken at public rallies in Chicago.

Elvira, meanwhile, has tried to make the tiny space where she lives with her son homey. Lace curtains hang over the one small window, which looks out onto a brick wall.

The pressure has taken its toll on her son, she said. Saulito has broken out in hives from stress and is seeing a therapist once a week to deal with nightmares of his mother being dragged out of the church.

"Some people have said I'm asking too much of Saulito," Elvira said. "But he wants to do this. He wants to fight this as much as I do."

On Tuesday morning, Elvira rolled out of bed, slipped on a T-shirt that reads "Who would Jesus deport?" and wandered out to a living room covered in protest posters and handwritten letters from supporters around the country.

Since her son left on his latest tour, she's talked to him every day by phone. Saul tells his mother he wants to come back home to Chicago. And he's afraid that his mother will be deported if he isn't there to protect her.

"He's sad because he thinks he's going to stay over there in Mexico," Elvira said. "As soon as he got there, he told me he didn't like it. He wants to come home, but at the same time he's happy because he knows that he's doing something to help me."

Upon hearing of the vote Tuesday in the Mexican Congress, Elvira joined several friends and congregation members in the church's cramped kitchen to celebrate with grape juice and a prayer.

"We want to thank you, God, that three parties that can't agree on anything … can agree that a mother and her child should not be separated," said family friend and associate pastor Beti Guevara. Then the group raised its glasses and cheered: "To Saulito! Our lobbyist!"

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hector.tobar@latimes.comTobar reported from Mexico City and Huffstutter from Chicago. Carlos Martínez and Cecilia Sánchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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