Church Is Sanctuary As Deportation Nears

The Rev. Walter
The Rev. Walter "Slim" Coleman has permitted Elvira Arellano, seated here, and her son to seek sanctuary in his United Methodist church in Chicago. (Scott Olson - Getty Images)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 17, 2006

CHICAGO, Aug. 16 -- A 31-year-old illegal immigrant who has become a spokeswoman for undocumented workers is defying a deportation order and has taken sanctuary in a church on this city's West Side.

Elvira Arellano refused to comply with the order directing her to return to her native Mexico on Tuesday. She is camped out in the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago's Humboldt Park, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

The church's storefront and pulpit are plastered with signs declaring it a holy sanctuary, invoking the sanctuary movement of the 1980s in which churches sheltered undocumented refugees from civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.

"This is the house of God," Arellano said Wednesday. "What man would enter the house of God to arrest me?"

In 2002, Arellano was arrested during sweeps at O'Hare International Airport, where, using a false Social Security number, she had gotten a job cleaning planes. She was ordered deported but obtained an extension to stay to care for her American-born son, Saul. Now 7, he suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and other health problems. The extension was granted because of private bills introduced by Sen. Richard L. Durbin and Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, both Illinois Democrats.

Arellano has since become a vocal leader of the burgeoning immigrant rights movement. She has visited Washington to lobby lawmakers, and she spoke with Mexican President Vicente Fox during a Chicago area visit in 2004. She founded an organization of undocumented parents with U.S. citizen children, marched with thousands in Chicago and Boston, and recently participated in a 24-day hunger strike to oppose deportations.

Her extension was denied this year by the Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"ICE is required to enforce the nation's laws fairly without any regard for a person's ability to generate publicity and support," said Gail Montenegro, ICE spokeswoman in Chicago.

Montenegro would not say whether agents will go to the church.

"ICE has the authority to arrest anyone in violation of immigration law anywhere in the U.S.," she said.

Arellano entered the country twice illegally. She was deported after her first attempt, then entered near Mexicali in 1997. She first worked in Washington state and gave birth to Saul, then separated from his father and came to Chicago in 2000.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Gutierrez have sent letters to President Bush asking that Arellano be allowed to remain in the country. But in a statement, Durbin appeared to be pulling back on his original support.

Durbin said that since her son's health has improved, Arellano's situation is now no different from "scores of people." Durbin added: "We cannot fix the injustices of this system with private bills; only comprehensive immigration reform can permanently remedy this situation."

Arellano said she will not be separated from her son, who played with toy trucks as she talked to reporters. She asked him if he would go back to Mexico with her, and he didn't want to, so she decided to stay in Chicago despite the deportation order.

The Rev. Walter "Slim" Coleman, pastor of the church where Arellano is taking refuge, believes she has been targeted because of her activism.

"Before, her extension was renewed as a matter of course, and now the conditions are the same, but it hasn't been renewed," he said. "That shows they're hardening" immigration enforcement. "I think it's retribution for her bringing to the forefront the issue of family unity."

Supporters have been crowding the pews and holding vigils outside the church.

"She is inspiring other people, and we need it because people are being deported by the minute," said Toribio Barreras, a 34-year-old volunteer firefighter and college student from Mexico who is also fighting deportation.

He was among the supporters who slept on the church's second floor with Arellano so he could be there if immigration agents came. Supporters said they will not cause trouble if agents come, but they want the world to see images on TV.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company