Immigration Activist to Leave Sanctuary

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 15, 2007; 6:32 PM

CHICAGO -- An illegal immigrant who took refuge in a church one year ago to escape deportation said Wednesday that she plans to leave her sanctuary soon to lobby Congress for immigration reform, even if that means risking arrest.

Elvira Arellano has said she feared being separated from her 8-year-old son, Saul, when she asked the Aldalberto United Methodist Church for help. On Wednesday, the anniversary of her move into the church, she announced she planned to leave on Sept. 12 to travel to Washington.

The decision to leave the church is not a challenge to authorities to arrest her, she said. She also said that if she is arrested, her son would stay in the United States.

"If this government would separate me from my son, let them do it in front of the men and women who have the responsibility to fix this broken law and uphold the principles of human dignity," Arellano, 32, said, reading in English from a prepared statement.

Arellano's public defiance has drawn attention to the cases of illegal immigrants whose children, like Saul, are U.S. citizens. She has reignited an interest in a sanctuary movement across the U.S., gone on hunger strikes, written dozens of letters and sent her son with other activists to Mexico and Washington to talk to lawmakers.

"She's a household figure at this point and her story is well known because people can relate to it," said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

But Arellano also has drawn criticism from people who say she broke the law and has exploited Saul by having him speak at news conferences.

She came to the U.S. illegally in 1997, was deported, but the returned. She moved to Illinois in 2000 because she had friends in the Chicago area, and she took a job cleaning planes at O'Hare International Airport.

In 2002, Arellano was arrested at O'Hare and was later convicted of working under a false Social Security number. She was to surrender to authorities last August to be deported to Mexico but instead took refuge in the church.

Arellano is considered an "immigration fugitive" because she failed to surrender for deportation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Wednesday. They declined to discuss specific details of her case.

"ICE has the authority to arrest illegal aliens in all locales and prioritizes its enforcement efforts based on investigative leads and intelligence," ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said in a statement Wednesday.

It isn't clear how Arellano will get to Washington next month, but she likely won't fly, the Rev. Walter Coleman told The Associated Press on Tuesday. He and others worry that Arellano will be arrested, but she plans to go anyway.

Whether she will continue her sanctuary at the church after that also isn't clear.

Arellano said she had been too comfortable and needs to "join the struggle" outside. She says she doesn't consider herself a symbol, just "a single mother who has a child who's an American citizen."

At times she has feared for her and Saul's safety, she said. In December, neighborhood residents said they saw U.S. marshals taking photos of the church. Federal agents denied the allegations, but immigration activists took up 24-hour vigils outside.

Arellano has no case pending to become a legal resident.

"I'm hoping for an immigration bill to pass," she said.

© 2007 The Associated Press