U.S. immigration officials announced Monday that Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant who symbolized inhumane treatment of migrants to some and brazen lawlessness to others, has been deported to her native Mexico, as immigrant-rights groups vowed to respond with massive protests.
Arellano, a 32-year-old single mother, was “a criminal fugitive alien who spent a year seeking to elude federal capture” by taking refuge in a Chicago church, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.
The agency said that tracking down and deporting immigration fugitives was one of its “top enforcement priorities” and that 220,000 illegal immigrants had been deported between last October and July, among the highest numbers ever for a 10-month period.
Federal immigration officials said they chose to arrest Arellano because she had defied not only immigration law but also federal criminal law.
In 2002, she was arrested and later convicted of using a false Social Security number to find work cleaning airplanes at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, gaining access to a secure area of a major airport one year after 9/11, said Jim Hayes, director of the immigration agency’s detention and removal operations in Los Angeles.
“We see her not as an icon but as a priority and example of the type of person we want to ensure we’re removing from the United States,” Hayes said.
But many immigrant-rights groups view Arellano as a symbol of courage in defying U.S. deportation orders that separated her from her 8-year-old son, Saul, a U.S. citizen. Southern California labor, religious and immigrant-rights groups are organizing vigils, political lobbying to give Arellano legal status to return and a march on Saturday through downtown Los Angeles to protest the actions.
Activists are also planning a national rally and boycott on behalf of Arellano in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12, said Carlos Montes of the March 25 Coalition, which organized the massive immigration march through Los Angeles last year.
“She’s encouraging and inspiring people by her courage in service of a mission to draw attention to the suffering of immigrant families,” said the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice of California, who is helping coordinate a national movement to offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants.
Federal immigration officials arrested Arellano without incident Sunday outside Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles. After being processed at an immigration facility in Santa Ana, Arellano was taken 100 miles to the border crossing at San Ysidro and turned over to Mexican immigration officials later that day.
Arellano left behind her tearful son, who headed to Tijuana on Monday to visit her.
The boy, who has since settled down and is “very calm,” according to Anita Rico, an Arellano supporter who drove with him to Tijuana, agreed to make the trip only if he could return to the United States, where he prefers to live. He was scheduled to return Monday night.
Shortly after taking sanctuary last year, Arellano had discussed her situation with Saul and had given him the choice of what to do if she were arrested, Rico said. The soon-to-be third-grader, whom Rico described as a straight-A student enamored of wrestling and soccer, said he wanted to stay in the United States with his legal guardians, the Rev. Walter Coleman and his wife, whose Chicago congregation had harbored Arellano.
Rico said Arellano never stepped outside her Chicago sanctuary until, as her one-year sanctuary anniversary approached, she decided to risk arrest by stepping out publicly in Los Angeles and had planned to speak in Washington, D.C., next month.
“She said she would sacrifice herself because our people can’t wait any more for just immigration reform,” Rico said.
Arellano first entered the U.S. in 1997; she was caught and deported. A few days later, she reentered the country, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. In 2002, she was arrested and convicted of using a false Social Security number in Chicago.
Last summer, an immigration judge ordered Arellano to appear for deportation. Instead, she sought refuge in the church.
Arellano’s deportation Sunday coincides with heightened enforcement against the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and the collapse of congressional efforts to pass an immigration reform bill that would have offered them a path to citizenship.
Many immigrant-rights groups had not widely embraced the sanctuary movement as their first tactic of choice, focusing instead on political action to win comprehensive reform. Now, however, Arellano’s deportation could refocus activists’ energies on broadening the sanctuary movement, according to Germonique Jones, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Fair Immigration Reform Movement.
In Southern California, 25 churches have signed up to offer sanctuary; four families are being harbored.
“It’s a rallying cry,” Jones said of Arellano’s deportation, “and another spark to bring people together to fight for immigration reform.”
But Arellano’s deportation also gave voice to powerful passions against illegal immigrants.
The L.A. Times website, latimes.com, drew hundreds of reader responses to the article Monday about Arellano, many of them outraged by what they saw as flouting of immigration laws.
In Chicago, dozens of protesters gathered in front of federal immigration offices, chanting for Arellano’s return and waving signs that read “Stop Enforcing Racist Laws.”
For some like Cynthia Lorenzo, 32, the news of Arellano’s fight reflected their own troubles.
“I’m a U.S. citizen. My children are citizens and my husband isn’t,” Lorenzo said. “He was deported a year ago, and we’ve been fighting for him to return ever since. I keep hoping that things will change, but it’s so hard to keep fighting.”
Times staff writer P.J. Huffstuffer in Chicago contributed to this report.