Activist's Arrest Highlights Key Immigrant Issue

By N.C. Aizenman and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The arrest and deportation to Mexico of an illegal immigrant who took sanctuary in a Chicago church to remain near her U.S.-born son has become the latest flashpoint in the nation's immigration debate, with proponents of more liberal immigration laws criticizing the action as heartless and unnecessary, and opponents praising it as long overdue.

Elvira Arellano, 32, was holed up with son Saul, 8, in Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago for a year before announcing at a news conference last week that she was leaving the church to lobby U.S. lawmakers. She was arrested Sunday in downtown Los Angeles after speaking at a rally and attending a Mass.

Immigration advocates have cited the predicament of a mother and son being hunted by authorities as a symbol of the unfairness of the country's tougher enforcement approach on illegal-immigrant working families and their U.S.-born children. Their situation also inspired a revival of the religious sanctuary movement among congregations in 50 U.S. cities.

Arellano's arrest draws "renewed attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of families who are in the same situation," said the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, national coordinator of the Los Angeles-based New Sanctuary Movement, which invited Arellano to speak to its members. She said that Arellano represents "families with U.S.-citizen children, with a long work record in this country, no criminal history, and who are part of the fabric of our country, who face the prospect of having parents ripped away from their kids."

Arellano was deported shortly after entering the United States illegally in 1997, then she reentered. She worked in Washington state and gave birth to her son, separated from his father, and in 2000 went to Chicago, where she cleaned planes at O'Hare International Airport.

She was arrested in 2002 and convicted of working under a false Social Security number during a review of airport personnel after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That conviction prompted a deportation order; Arellano was to surrender to authorities last August but instead sought refuge at the church.

Opponents called her deportation a belated step by the Bush administration to uphold the rule of law.

"This woman knowingly violated the law and lived in the U.S. illegally," said Steven A. Camarota, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates less immigration. "She was deported, knowingly violated the law and came back."

Camarota said that although the U.S. immigration system should and does grant exceptions in rare cases, Arellano had her day in court, lost and chose not to live with her son in Mexico. "She does seem at times to have willingly used her son as a kind of prop. . . . We didn't, quote, 'separate the family.' She chose to do that."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Arellano was arrested in California to avoid a confrontation at the Chicago church, where her supporters protested peacefully yesterday.

"We are required to enforce our nation's laws and make sure they are applied fairly without regard for a person's ability to generate public support," ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said. "Mrs. Arellano willfully violated immigration laws, and she is facing the consequences of her illegal activity. "

There are about 3.1 million American-born children of illegal immigrants, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute and the Pew Hispanic Center. Until recently, few parents were deported because U.S. authorities rarely caught immigrants who made it across the border and settled in this country. Only about 3 percent of immigrants, or about 51,000 people, who were removed by ICE in 2004 had lived in the country for more than a year, according to federal officials.

That changed this year as the United States stepped up raids on companies employing illegal workers. In response, advocates increasingly highlight cases in which families with U.S.-born children are broken up, convinced that their plight presents a compelling case for offering legal status to immigrants.

Arellano's son was among the most prominent. Saul spoke at rallies in the United States and Mexico, and even lobbied members of the U.S. Congress and addressed the Mexican Congress.

He was with his mother when she was arrested at about 2:30 p.m. local time upon leaving Mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church. According to Emma Lozano, head of the Chicago immigrant-rights group Centro Sin Fronteras, who was with them, several unmarked cars encircled the sport-utility vehicle they were riding in and agents began "screaming and yelling at the rest of us to get out of the car."

Arellano pleaded with agents to give her a moment to console her crying son, before hugging him and making the Sign of the Cross over him, she said.

"She took Saulito's hands and said to him very calmly, 'They can't hurt us. God is protecting us. You just have to have faith and I will be fine and with you soon,' " Lozano said. "They clearly wanted to silence her forever. . . . To think that there are all these criminals out there and they spend all these taxpayer dollars to arrest Elvira Arellano. How pathetic."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company