Agents arrest immigrant activist

Times Staff Writers

Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who became a symbol in the nation's immigration wars after she took sanctuary in a Chicago church last year, was arrested Sunday by federal immigration agents outside Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles.

Arellano, 32, a single mother, moved into a Chicago church a year ago to prevent being separated from her 8-year-old U.S.-born son.

She was arrested Sunday afternoon as she was leaving the downtown Los Angeles church also known as La Placita with her son and a supporter.

Supporters said the car in which Arellano was riding was surrounded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who took her into custody.

The agency did not say where she was being held but did confirm that Arellano would be deported to Mexico.

For immigrant-rights groups she had become the human face of stepped-up enforcement efforts that frequently separate immigrant mothers and fathers from their American-born children.

But to groups opposing illegal immigrants, Arellano was someone who had broken U.S. laws and' was flouting it by holding press conferences from the Chicago sanctuary church.

There are at least 3.1 million children in the U.S. who have one or more parents in the country illegally, according to a 2006 report released by the Pew Hispanic Center.

"She broke the law. You cannot use your child as a human shield to ignore immigration laws," said Joseph Turner, Western regional coordinator of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "You cannot say: I have a child who is an American citizen. That makes me immune to any law I violated."

Other anti-illegal immigration activists have said that Arellano could remain with her child simply by taking him with her to Mexico.

Arellano entered the United States in 1997. On her first try, she was caught at the border and deported, said Walter Colman, the pastor at Adalberto United Methodist Church, where Arellano had sought sanctuary in Chicago.

She reentered a few days later and in 2002 was arrested -- and later convicted -- of using a false Social Security number at her job cleaning airplanes at O'Hare International Airport.

Last summer, an immigration judge ordered Arellano to present herself for deportation.

Instead, she sought refuge in the Chicago church.

Arellano came to Los Angeles on Friday to speak at four area churches over the weekend. She was pressing for immigration reform that would provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million people in the U.S. illegally.

Immigration sweeps have mounted since congressional measures to legalize the country's undocumented immigrants were defeated this summer.

Federal immigration authorities confirmed Arellano had been taken into custody Sunday afternoon without incident and was being processed to be deported to Mexico.

"Arresting and removing criminal aliens is one of ICE's top enforcement priorities, and the agency will continue to pursue these cases vigorously," ICE said in a statement.

At a hastily organized press conference outside the Metropolitan Detention Center downtown, members of the Chicago church where Arellano had stayed denounced the federal government and called on supporters to march to Washington, D.C., to protest immigration laws.

"Everyone should be angry," said Emma Lozano, a member of the Chicago church.

Standing next to Lozano was Arellano's son, Saul Arellano, wearing baggy jeans and looking bewildered by all the attention.

The boy and his mother were leaving the L.A. church by car, heading to another church, when about 15 ICE agents in vans encircled the group, according to Arellano's supporters.

Lozano said Elvira Arellano told her frightened son to be calm and asked the agents to allow her a moment alone with him before they took her away.

Arellano was part of a fledgling movement of churches in New York, Chicago, San Diego and Los Angeles that had recently offered sanctuary to illegal immigrants.

But her cause was not widely embraced by immigrant rights activists, some of whom believed the idea of religious organizations willfully flouting the law to shelter an illegal immigrant with final deportation orders was too confrontational and feared that her tactics would only fuel anti-immigrant forces in the U.S.

Many Americans feel torn about cases such as Arellano's, said Grace Dyrness, who is studying the sanctuary movement at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC.

"People are struggling: Where do I land? Do I side with the law, without compassion? Or with compassion, and then I don't have regard for our laws?" she said.

"People wonder: what is the law and what does my heart say and how do we bring those two together?" Dyrness said.

Dyrness said 12 congregations in Los Angeles County -- churches and synagogues -- have in the last year declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants at risk of being deported.

Six immigrants are taking sanctuary in these churches, including La Placita and Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles and St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Long Beach.

Arellano's arrest, Dyrness predicted, would put a damper on undocumented immigrants seeking sanctuary in churches, because they would fear becoming targets of federal immigration authorities.

But she also predicted the arrest would mobilize churches to come to their aid.

Arellano had been quite public about her opposition to the immigration sweeps, as well as her position as a woman who had flouted a deportation order.

The Chicago-based political organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which that has been supporting her activism, issued a press release with her itinerary of speeches at four Los Angeles churches over the last weekend.

But Colman, of Adalberto United Methodist in Chicago said Arellano had not sought to be arrested, despite the risk she took in moving from one church to the next.

"We always knew it was a possibility that she would be arrested," said Colman, after the press conference. "She was hopeful the country would have the wisdom and the humanity to let her state her case."

sonia.nazario@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

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