Elvira Arellano was deported to Mexico after seeking sanctuary in a church for a year. She leaves her eight year old son with friends, and promises to continue her fight for the rights of immigrant families.
I met Elvira a year ago, in the fall of 2006, a few months after she had taken sanctuary in a Chicago church. A petite woman of 31, she had long brown hair tied in a ponytail, and she was wearing sweatpants and flip-flops when she greeted me upstairs in her small quarters at the church. She looked young and even a bit hip, except for the careworn, slightly sad expression in her eyes.
Arellano had entered the church on August 15, 2006 instead of reporting to the Department of Homeland Security for deportation as ordered. That summer, a storm of controversy raged in the media and around the little storefront church located on, ironically enough, Division Street. An illegal immigrant and a single mother who had dared to defy the law in such a public fashion, who claimed that she was obeying a higher, moral law to provide for her child by staying in this country where she had worked menial jobs without papers for nine years—she touched a raw nerve in a nation five years-deep into its post-9/11 immigration debate.
She was cast as the face of all immigrants trying to make a better life for their children; she was portrayed as a trespasser who bore an “anchor baby” in order to secure her future on U.S. soil. But beyond the controversy surrounding her, Arellano and her young son Saul most of all embody the lived experience of almost every immigration policy and its devastating consequences.
In late 2002, Arellano and Saul were sleeping in their apartment when eight ICE agents knocked on the door. “I woke him up because we had to go, and he looked at everyone who was in the room with their radios and guns, and he started to scream,” she recalled. “Since he was panicking, I hugged him and told him to calm down and to not ask me questions please, and I hugged him very hard. I told him that they would take me and that he would stay with the babysitter.”
Arellano, who worked at O’Hare Airport cleaning planes at the time, had been arrested as part of Operation Tarmac. Deployed as an airport security initiative in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, Tarmac was one of the first post-9/11 policies to target immigrant workers in the war on terror. As the secret detentions post-9/11 were taking place, federal agents initiated arrests at airports across the country, starting with 29 Mexican workers in Denver detained late September 2001 for document fraud. By December, the airport sweeps had become a multi-agency undertaking that continued into 2002 and eventually jailed more than 1,000 mostly Latino airport workers.
Targeted first as a security threat, Arellano then entered the deportation system as a criminal alien and eventually was sent the notice, known as a “bag and baggage” letter, that immigrants receive when they are ordered to report with a suitcase packed for deportation. “I thought, but why, I am not a criminal. I am not stealing, nor did I kill anyone. I didn’t want to steal an airplane, you see,” she said. “Why do they take the taxes and accept my manual labor for nine years? Why do they accept my taxes but cannot accept the fact that I have human rights?”
As an undocumented worker at the beginning of the post-9/11 crackdown, Arellano was among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who from the very beginning were being affected by government campaigns such as the airport sweeps, the Social Security Administration sending “no-match” letters to employers who then used them to fire or intimidate workers, and the launching of the Absconder Apprehension Initiative to track and pursue more than 300,000 “fugitive aliens” with outstanding deportation orders.
After the immigrant rights marches last year, and throughout the campaign for national reform legislation, Arellano’s sanctuary stance came to signify the larger dilemma facing millions of families with undocumented and mixed legal status.
There were other ways to get by. She could have appealed for individual amnesty through sympathetic politicians; she could have perhaps taken deportation and tried crossing the border again, as she’d done before. Or she could have simply tried to disappear and work underground, joining the hundreds of thousands of “fugitive” absconders who are periodically pursued in government raids.
But Arellano took the risk of speaking out. She joined a long tradition of social change by not just living with injustice but bringing her experience to the public sphere. The fact that she generated such indignation by this action points to the depth of her challenge to an untenable, fundamentally flawed immigration system and a culture that has yet to face it honestly.
“I’ve learned so much, and I feel strong and peaceful,” Elvira Arellano told me that day in Chicago. “I have faith that it will be possible for me to stay in this country and for all families to stay together.”