Immigrant activist to leave safety of church

Chicago Tribune

During the year she has avoided deportation inside the sanctuary of a Chicago church, Elvira Arellano has become a national symbol for the immigration debate, with supporters heralding her as a Mexican Rosa Parks and critics citing her case as an example of government inaction.

Next month, Arellano plans to provoke the discussion even further by leaving Adalberto United Methodist Church and traveling with her 8-year-old son, Saul, to Washington.

There, at the risk of being arrested by federal agents and deported, she’ll pray and fast for eight hours on Sept. 12 at the National Mall in hopes of pressuring Congress to pass more lenient immigration reforms, Arellano said during a news conference Wednesday -- the one-year anniversary of her stay inside the church.


Arellano’s journey will be by road, her supporters said. They declined to discuss further details of the trip for fear of repercussions in a climate of stepped-up workplace raids, harsher penalties against hiring illegal workers and arrests of some 675 illegal immigrants per week in recent months.

After a bipartisan bill that would have offered legalization to the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants was defeated in the Senate this summer, federal officials have embarked on such measures to prove they’re serious about enforcing immigration laws.

Arellano, 32, was arrested in 2002 during a federal sweep at O’Hare International Airport, where she worked cleaning airplanes. Convicted of using a fake Social Security number, she was scheduled to turn herself in last summer for deportation to Mexico.

Instead, she took refuge inside the church, and has never left since, she says.

“God has protected me for this long year,” Arellano said, delivering a prepared statement in both unsteady English and in her native Spanish before a standing-room-only crowd of supporters and TV cameras in the tiny church.

“But I cannot sit by now and watch the lives of mothers and fathers like me and children like Saul be destroyed,” Arellano said.

“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,” she said, calling on supporters to skip school and boycott local businesses while she’s in Washington.

Though Arellano and her supporters insist the trip is not meant as a challenge to federal immigration authorities, their plans nonetheless further complicate the government’s position.

All along, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, has had the legal authority to enter the church and arrest Arellano.

But, with worldwide publicity surrounding her case, officials have avoided the symbolism of raiding a church, referring anyone who asks about their intentions to a prepared statement that calls Arellano a fugitive and explains that all arrests are prioritized.

On Wednesday, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman again referred reporters to the statement.