Revolution #100, September 9, 2007

The Unjust Deportation of Elvira Arellano

“It means they want to deport the rest of us, whether there is a deportation order on us or not; that they don’t care if we go into a church for sanctuary, sooner or later they will get us; that they don’t care if we have children that were born here because they are following the supposed law.”

—Immigrant woman from Mexico who has been living in the U.S. for 22 years, speaking about what message the government is sending with the arrest and deportation of Elvira Arellano

In an attempt to silence a leading figure in the immigrants rights movement and intimidate the entire immigrant community, U.S. immigration officials arrested Elvira Arellano in Los Angeles on August 19--and deported her to Mexico that night. For many people, Arellano had become a symbol of resistance to unjust U.S. immigration laws.

Arellano was leaving a downtown Los Angeles church when the van she was traveling in was suddenly blocked and surrounded by unmarked vehicles. About 15 federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jumped out, arrested the driver, and screamed at her to exit the vehicle.

After a few minutes of trying to calm her eight-year-old son, Saul, who was terrified and in tears, Arellano surrendered to the agents. They transported her that afternoon to an immigration facility in Santa Ana, 30 miles from Los Angeles, to be processed for deportation. By 10 p.m. she had been taken about 100 miles to the border and turned over to Mexican authorities.

Elvira Arellano caught public attention and won support from immigrant rights activists and the immigrant community last year when she refused to turn herself in for deportation and instead sought sanctuary in a Chicago church to prevent the government from separating her from her son, who was born in the U.S. and is a U.S. citizen.

While it is unknown how many families the U.S. government has already broken up through deportations, the Pew Hispanic Center reported last year that more than 1.3 million children have at least one parent who is undocumented and at risk of being deported at any time.

Like countless millions of others who are forced to leave their homelands in search of survival, Elvira Arellano came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1997. Like millions of others, she had to live in the shadows, using fake documents to obtain employment and evading immigration authorities as she raised a son on her own.

In 2000, after relocating from Oregon to Chicago, Arellano got a job cleaning airplanes at O’Hare International Airport. Two years later, during a federal raid at the airport (which officials called an “anti-terrorist operation”), Arellano was arrested along with other airport workers. She was convicted of using a fake Social Security number, and this resulted in an order of deportation.

Taking refuge at Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago in August 2006, Elvira Arellano said to the press, “I think that [deportation] order was selective, vengeful and inhumane.” She also said, “In the three years since I was arrested at my home, in front of my son, I have fought day after day for the 12 million undocumented people in this country…I am not a criminal, nor a terrorist. I am a mother and working woman.”

Arellano became a leader of the group La Familia Latina Unida, which focuses on family unification and mutual support for immigrant families.

During a press conference on August 15, 2007, on the one-year anniversary of her sanctuary at the church, Elvira announced that she and her son would travel to the National Mall in Washington D.C. for a prayer vigil and fast demanding that Congress pass immigration reforms. Four days later she was arrested in Los Angeles.

The day after her deportation, U.S. immigration officials talked about Arellano as if she had been wanted for mass murder, describing her as “a criminal fugitive alien who spent a year seeking to elude federal capture.” In an attempt to intimidate the entire immigrant community, they bragged about having deported 220,000 immigrants between last October and July of this year.

Hours after Arellano was nabbed by the ICE agents, supporters arrived in front of the downtown L.A. federal building to protest her arrest and demand her return to the U.S.

In Mexico, Arellano continued to be unapologetic as she spoke with reporters the day after her deportation: “I had to wake up the people. If my arrest is able to unite the community, religious and community leaders to fight together, then I am satisfied with having paid that price and I am happy that the people are waking up.”

She also said, “I have also been victorious because I decided to fight this from the moment of my arrest in 2002, and I did not keep quiet because this was all a part of the big struggle for legalization.”

On August 29, about 2,000 people marched in Los Angeles in support of Elvira Arellano. A high school youth, who had heard about the march that morning and came with her friend, said, “I don’t see how that’s possible—to separate a mother from her son. It’s not right. That’s what should be illegal.”

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