Sanctuary’s Human Face

Elvira Arellano showed that faith, not self-interest, moves our people.

By Aarti Shahani Jan 07, 2008

Elvira Arellano met with Felipe Calderon in his salon. These household names from Michoacán, Mexico followed starkly different paths to celebrity: the latter, a
Harvard graduate, had just taken the Mexican presidency with only a .58-percent margin of victory and amidst fervent dissent; the former, a cleaning lady, had just been deported from the United States after taking sanctuary to evade immigration laws.

Elvira came to Felipe seeking a diplomatic visa to return to the U.S. legally. Already praised as a peace ambassador and the “Rosita Parks” of immigrant rights, she believed she could help these two nations work out a deal on migrants, just as they had with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the drug wars. Perhaps uneasy with people who question authority, or concerned that turning a deportee into a government officer would upset the markets, Felipe politely declined. Elvira left the salon disappointed and criticized her new president to the leading newspaper, La Jornada: “He is very weak.”

Her assessment was not without basis. Elvira knew something about risk and vulnerability. A single mother, once deported and having twice crossed the border, she used to clean airplanes at O’Hare International Airport. Just before Christmas 2002, a federal sweep of 500 workers pushed her off the payroll and into the criminal courts. After three appearances before a federal judge, she pleaded guilty to document fraud (she bought fake papers to be able to work) and got three years probation. Elvira now belonged to a category almost universally condemned as “doubly illegal.” As a New York Times journalist once editorialized, “The country is polarized between those who want a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and those who want to deport them. But just about everyone agrees that the doubly illegal, immigrants with no documents and who have committed crimes, are not welcome.”

Elvira disagreed. She was in fact outraged that the criminal courts would judge her so severely and that the immigration courts would not judge her at all. Contrary to popular belief, Elvira never had an immigration hearing. Deportation was the outcome of a civil process run entirely by Homeland Security.

My colleague Subhash Kateel, a veteran organizer, once told a disbelieving congressman, “Deportation is the cruelest civil proceeding in America. Is there any other where you can be incarcerated the whole time and never get a hearing?” If there is a single feature that distinguishes today’s immigration system from the past, it is prison. Two years after NAFTA deregulated economic borders, then–President Clinton signed domestic immigration laws that made deportation and detention mandatory minimums within our physical borders.

Elvira—unlike most of the workers picked up in the airport raids, and unlike most of the 2 million deported in the last decade—was not locked up physically. Nor spiritually. Where most would be afraid or ashamed, she insisted, “God is not embarrassed when one speaks for truth.” In advocates’ press conferences, she soon became the human face on the broken system.

While bearing witness, Elvira met Emma Lozano, an old-timer in Chicago politics who is as revered as she is controversial. Emma approached this young woman, raw with passion, and asked: “Do you have a job? A lawyer? A place to stay?” Emma invited her to live in a church. Elvira was cleaning homes and selling buttons about her struggle to skim by. Free housing was a godsend. And so began a relationship that pulled Elvira into a politicized community. Regular people resist political disenfranchisement daily—crossing the border, working off the books, saving money under mattresses. The standard nonprofit organization—structured to provide services or lobby people with power–is not built to seize on the power of regular people. Maria Jimenez, another veteran organizer, explains: “You see so much second- and third-floor organizing that assumes we have a first floor…the first floor is busy working and saving money.”

Elvira was positioned to bridge the chasm between everyday survival and collective efforts for change. Her first assignment was to build La Familia Latina Unida, an organization for families like hers. She brought together dozens. They exchanged information about jobs and lawyers. Her American-born son Saulito led the youth. Using the relationships of Somos Un Pueblo (Emma’s organization) and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the families got a private bill sponsored by Congressman Luis Gutierrez and Senator Dick Durbin. A private bill suspends public law for a named individual or group subject to that law. If passed, a private bill would make the members of La Familia Latina Unida an exception to the laws requiring the deportation of millions.

The group raised their own funds to take buses to Washington, D.C. Elvira was there at least 20 times. She joined coalitions for immigration reform and driver’s licenses, not as a professional, but as a leader. Her analysis transformed, too. She explained: “From working at Somos Un Pueblo, I now know that legalization doesn’t solve the problem for everyone. What about the people deported, or the people with old, old crimes?” Such people have been the government’s unrelenting focus. Despite Elvira’s civic leadership, Homeland Security ordered her to surrender. Unlike carefully picked idols of other movements, the imperfect mother (single and unemployed, with a criminal record and deportation order) had little more than faith in God and Saulito when she said, “No.” America had not seen this type of civil disobedience since the 1980s sanctuary movement. It touched countless hearts.

Mine included. For several years, I have been a member of Families for Freedom, a New York group similar to Elvira’s. That spring, when million-immigrant marches overran America, we had a rare win for a grassroots body: our American-born youth moved Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano to introduce national legislation. Nationwide, 15 percent of U.S. families are composed of citizen children and immigrant parents. If passed, the Child Citizen Protection Act would allow immigration judges to consider American children before deporting their mom or dad. In a policy battle overwhelmingly defined by business interests, Emma Lozano once called the children’s bill “the best-kept secret in this whole immigration debate.” It remains pending in the House.

In the middle of our victory and work, I lost sight of a friend. On the tenth anniversary of the 1996 laws, while we were in the capitol, educating lawmakers, Jorge Emilio Cabrera was at the Homeland Security office. Cabrera was a green card holder with an old drug conviction. In 1999, the government expelled him to the Dominican Republic. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled his deportation was illegal. In 2002, while Cabrera was working for a shipping boat that docked at an American port, customs pulled him off the vessel and charged him with illegal re-entry. He spent the next four years serving time in a federal prison, appealing his case and trying to be a father to his sons, who missed him.

While Cabrera argued that he should be allowed to stay, the government said the past is the past—the old deportation could not be reversed. They were awaiting a court decision when immigration officers detained Cabrera during a standard parole visit. Once he was inside, it was impossible to get him out. The last time I talked with Cabrera, he was calling from the Dominican Republic. “You gotta get me back in…I got my kids. This guy here, he tellin’ me I can appeal.” I said, “Okay, okay. Let’s talk, but later. I gotta go.” I was headed to some important meeting. Days later, Cabrera died in a car accident, driving on a dirt road from his hometown to Santo Domingo. When a group of us crossed the sea to visit his grave, the senior Cabrera explained that Junior had just gotten a job. He left the earth with hope. Christ said that when a seed falls to the ground, it will multiply. But not of its own accord. The earth must engulf and nourish it. I felt despair, not hope, when my friend fell. Like the victim of a crime, I replayed the scene and asked repeatedly: “What did I do wrong?” Over time, the living struggles of other friends pulled me out of regret and into a search for ways to memorialize his death.

Elvira, through her sacrifice, sowed a path. Slowly in New York a few religious leaders began talking about providing sanctuary. Most of our members believe deeply in God and belong to churches and mosques. Houses of worship seemed to us to be natural allies. We became a peculiar asset to them too, grounding the ministers’ conversations with a very technical understanding of the legal maze (we lived it) and families already campaigning against their deportation (just like Elvira).

Sanctuary is not a social service. It is not legal representation on steroids. It is risky and time-intensive, especially for the person taking it. When we presented sanctuary to members at a monthly meeting, it was a moot point for most—their loved ones are locked up. But two men, from China and Haiti, rose to it. Thus began our sanctuary campaigns. The greatest lesson they have shown me so far is that faith—not self-interest—moves our people. The very fact that our rank-and-file keeps taking action, despite growing and militant raids, is proof that hate produces far more than fear in us.

Elvira’s decision to leave sanctuary may have been the least self-interested and boldest of her actions. Many said it was downright unstrategic. After fasting for two weeks, she gave a press conference and launched a tour in cities
that were joining the new sanctuary movement that she inspired. Set to culminate in the capitol, the tour never made it past point one. Unmarked vehicles surrounded her very public entourage in Los Angeles, the nation’s premiere “sanctuary city.” After giving her a moment to say goodbye to Saulito, agents hauled her off. She was back in Mexico within days.

Though the government could have locked her up for several years, they did not. Luissana Santibanez, a college student who began visiting detained women and children after her own mother was deported, suggests, “They knew with her inside, all hell would have broken loose. Hunger strikes. She would have been organizing prisoners.” In the haste to get rid of Elvira, officials even violated the Vienna Convention, which required them to inform the Mexican government of her arrest and obtain permission to send her back.

Many laws went out the window in Elvira’s case. Her opponents were outraged, not just because she was a lawbreaker. She believed, truly, that she and her son deserved rights. Back in Mexico, Elvira continues to demand and believe. And in the U.S., for those of us who remain, her very complicated story lingers as a parable of what makes life worth living.