Deported immigration activist is toast of Tijuana

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Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA -- This city of broken immigrant dreams has rarely seen the likes of Elvira Arellano, the tough-talking deportee from Chicago.

And rarely has Tijuana welcomed a deported immigrant the way it has embraced Arellano this week.

Since Arellano was arrested in Los Angeles and returned to Mexico she’s engaged in a whirlwind of public appearances where she’s been heralded as a hero for defying U.S. authorities by taking sanctuary in a church.


In the United States, her yearlong battle made her a polarizing figure alternately viewed as an icon of immigrant rights or a selfish lawbreaker.

But in Mexico, Arellano’s experience is portrayed as a story of principled resistance, of a woman who fought before becoming one of the thousands of illegal immigrants who file sadly back into this border metropolis every year.

“You’ve become the voice of all the Elviras in the U.S.,” said Heriberto Garcia, of Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights, an independent organization. “The voice of female undocumented immigrants who pursue the dream of working and forming a family.”

Arellano’s experience struck a chord in a city teeming with deported immigrants.

Callers to talk shows pledged their support. She has been invited to meet with federal lawmakers in Mexico City today.

“Elvira unites Latinos behind her,” blared a headline from the Frontera newspaper.

Arellano was arrested Sunday outside Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in downtown Los Angeles. The arrest came days after she left the church in Chicago, where she took refuge to avoid being separated from her son, who is a U.S. citizen.

Arellano said she left the church fearing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents would soon enter the building to arrest her. She didn’t want to go without a fight, so she flew to Los Angeles, she said, to revive the immigration reform movement.


“I made the visit to Los Angeles to put immigration reform back on the table. To lift the spirits of the people. . . . I saw that everything was too quiet,” Arellano said on a radio talk show.

She expected to be arrested, Arellano said, but didn’t mind sacrificing herself for the cause. “I wanted the people to see me strong, not weak,” she said.

Critics in the U.S. questioned her motives.

“It’s pretty clear that she wasn’t getting the kind of publicity she wanted holed up in that church in Chicago for a year. She needed to goose the issues, so she needed to get back into the media spotlight,” said Mark Kirkorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.

Mexican media were falling over themselves giving her the spotlight, which they believed she richly deserved.

Arellano said she plans to continue her activism in the short term, but won’t decide her future plans until going home to Michoacan next week. She said her 8-year-old son, Saul, will stay in the United States, but will visit her regularly.

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. Sanctuary is an ancient concept but has no standing under U.S. law. Still, authorities refrained from arresting her until she began traveling outside Chicago.

Arellano said that she didn’t deserve to be deported, and that she used the fake Social Security number so she could pay taxes and buy a house.

“I didn’t harm anyone,” she said. “I just wanted to work.”


Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.