Elvira Arellano: saint or sinner?

articles History & People

Maggie Van Ostrand

A Balloon in Cactus

When Elvira Arellano illegally crossed the U.S. border in 1997, she had no idea that one day, she would become a beacon of light in the darkness of U.S. immigration politics, nor that Time magazine would name her one of the People Who Mattered in 2006.

Like Victor Hugo’s fictional Quasimodo who sought sanctuary within the cool confines of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Elvira has sought sanctuary by living inside the Adalberto United Methodist church in Chicago to avoid arrest and deportation. She has been there one year this month looking through a plate glass window at the street outside on which she may not stroll.

Arellano, who was raised Catholic, “joined the Protestant congregation years before she sought sanctuary in its storefront. ‘I started coming here,” she said, “because I like what they do when it comes to social justice. For me, the most important thing is my faith, not the religion,'” reports the Chicago Tribune.

U.S. law does not recognize sanctuary nor does it give Elvira any choice other than deportation with her son, despite his American citizenship by birth, or try to change the law.

In March 1982, a Presbyterian church in a Tucson Arizona barrio, publicly announced that its doors were open to refugees fleeing war in Central America. That same day, other churches around the country followed suit, and by the end of 1983, at least one church or synagogue in many U.S. cities had defiantly declared itself a sanctuary for refugees.

The rabble-rousing website, NewsMax, lists sanctuary states including Alaska, California, Maine, and Oregon. In New Mexico, Rio Arriba County has declared itself a sanctuary; and among the sanctuary cities are Anchorage, Ala.; Los Angeles, Calif.; Chicago and Evanston, Ill.; Cambridge, Mass.; Portland, Maine; Takoma Park and Garrett Park, Md.; Detroit, Mich.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Durham, N.C.; New York City; Gaston, Ore.; Austin and Houston, Texas; Seattle, Wash.; and Madison, Wis.

There is something wonderful about the people of the United States of America — even though our country appears to be upside down at the moment, we still know right from wrong. I’m not talking about helping terrorists, tolerating street gangs, or excusing drunk drivers who are here illegally. I’m talking about nice people like Elvira Arellano.

Elvira was caught and deported back to Mexico, illegally returning to the U.S. soon after. She lived in Oregon until 2000 when she and her young son moved to Chicago where, using a fake Social Security card, she got a job cleaning airplanes at O’Hare Airport for $6.50 an hour. In Mexico, she had earned $1.20 an hour in a border factory working six 12-hour days a week.

In 2003, in a terrorist sweep code-named Operation Chicagoland Skies, one of several federal stings designed to ferret out terrorists and calm the public’s fear of flying created by the 9/11 attacks, Elvira was caught.

“I felt terrible because they were treating me like a criminal,” said Arellano, after her arrest. “Perhaps my only crime was to work to make a future for my son,” reports the Tribune.

31-year-old Elvira was ordered to appear before immigration authorities on August 15, 2006 but instead, fled to the church to avoid arrest and deportation. The following November, her young son appeared before the Congress of Mexico, and Mexican lawmakers passed a resolution urging the U.S. government to suspend Elvira’s deportation.

The U.S. government’s position is that Arellano is free to take Saul with her to Mexico if she wants to keep her family together. But Saul, now eight, wants to live in his own country, the U.S.

The church’s activist pastor, Rev. Walter Coleman, in speaking of how long this Mexican Standoff has lasted, said “We were ready to go down in a blaze of glory. We really thought the Feds would come in.”

In support, La Placita, an historic Los Angeles church, declared itself a sanctuary for any undocumented immigrant facing deportation, something it did during the 1980s for the first refugees from war-ridden Guatemala and El Salvador who escaped to California.

On May 3, 2007, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), introduced H.R. 2182, which would grant legal immigrant status, with the possibility of applying for permanent residence status, to Arellano and others.

The collapse of the immigration-reform bill that offered a chance of legal status for Elvira and others, hit hard. Elvira said, it was like “a kick in the stomach…. We had hopes that the government would take a big step forward. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Now we will have to be stronger.”

When Elvira says “We are not criminals or terrorists. We are mothers and fathers,” it does not appease U.S. citizens who believe the worst about Mexican immigrants without taking the trouble to find out if “the worst” is the truth.

Last week when speaking on Immigration at a conference of Catholic Bishops and Deacons in New Mexico, this writer covered a lot of ground, including how the U.S. erected 2,500 feet of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border between one and six feet on the wrong side. I didn’t think we could do anything much dumber than that.

But to disallow political sanctuary in the U.S. seems a most undemocratic policy in a country that takes such pride in being a democracy that it tries to force-feed its political beliefs to other nations.

We were once a beacon of light to the rest of the world. Now, we must turn to humor to offset our anger at the injustices we see where once there were none. On a website devoted to helping illegal immigrants become legal, these two comments were found:

“If a squirrel goes up a politician’s pants… You can bet… he’ll come-back down hungry”


“Save America: Deport Congress”

With humor like that, we’ve got a good chance of returning to what we’re famous for: the justice that permitted our ancestors entry into a country that provides refuge from fear.

Published or Updated on: March 1, 2008 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2008
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