By Tram Nguyen
Instead of reporting to immigration authorities for her deportation order, Arellano took her 7-year-old son Saul and entered Adalberto United Methodist church.
Taking sanctuary. Taking a stand.
The church is just a small storefront on Division Street in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. Outside its doors, a storm raged from August through the fall last year with civil rights marches, media from around the world and Minutemen in attendance.
The woman at the center of the storm is a slight, shy 31-year-old single mother, former airport worker and undocumented immigrant. On Aug. 15, 2006, instead of reporting to immigration authorities for her deportation order, Arellano took her 7-year-old son Saul and entered Adalberto United Methodist church, launching the first church sanctuary case in the United States since the 1980s sanctuary movement for Central American refugees.
Her standoff with the Department of Homeland Security, whose agents have said they won’t hesitate to enter the church to arrest her at a time of their own choosing, has provided the immigrant rights movement with an important act of civil disobedience during a time when raids continue to target 600,000 “fugitives” and the possibility of positive national reform remains distant.
Her case also raised a public debate over morality versus an inhumane immigration law that even referenced the abolitionists’ defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act. Meanwhile, organizers at Centro Sin Fronteras and La Familia Latina Unida, which Arellano helped found, used the momentum to push ahead with a call for a moratorium on raids and deportations until “the broken law is fixed.”
With a strong dose of religious faith and a simple message about a mother’s love, Arellano has firmly asserted the reality of undocumented families and their 4 million U.S.-born children into the immigration debate.
“I’ve learned so much, and I feel strong and peaceful,” Arellano said. “I have faith that it will be possible for me to stay in this country and for all families to stay together.”
Q & A with Elvira Arellano:
How old were you when you left your hometown in Michoacán to come to the U.S.?
I was 23 years old when I came here. My mother and my father were sick. My father had muscular dystrophy and my mother had diabetes. She was sick for 15 years and my father for 35 years. They could not work.
Did you know anyone who had come to the U.S.?
Many peoplefriends and cousins. My grandfather came with the bracero program. My grandfather returned to Mexico and died 15 years ago. When he was in the bracero program he did get paid, but many people did not. My uncles, they all came here with the bracero program.
When you left, did you go alone or in a group?
Alone. I was nervous, as you can imagine. I prayed a lot to be able to cross. Because the men, the coyotes, those men scared me. I wanted to cross so I wouldn’t stay at the border. I crossed through Calexico, near San Diego.
And when you crossed, you went to Washington state?
To San Jose, California, and from there I flew to Washington with some friends.
What work did you do?
Washing clothes and baby-sitting.
Were you able to communicate with your family?
Yes, I was able to send some money. I am always talking to my mother to tell her what is going on.
It is hard, but to help your family it is easier to be here than to be there. In Mexico, you can apply for a job when you are between 18 to 25 years old. If you are older it is more difficult, and I am already 31. It is not so easy for them to give me a job in Mexico. That is why there is so much unemployment in Mexico, because they don’t offer opportunities to us. In Mexico to be able to work at McDonald’s you have to have finished high school and here, without being able to read and write, one can start to work.
When you got to Chicago, you looked for a job at the airport?
No, first I worked for a temporary agency. Sometimes they would send me to work, sometimes not and it was very difficult. Also because I didn’t know with whom to leave [my son] Saulito to look after him, it was very difficult. I found work at the airport which was better because for me it was a minimum salary of $6.50, but it was the whole week, five days a week. I had to be there from 12 until 8 at night or 11 or 12 at night. It was difficult but I had that job.
It was 2002 when they arrested me. About eight federal agents came to my house and knocked on my door. They were asking me if I had weapons, and they told me that they would hand my child over to the state if I didn’t take care of him. I told them that I have always worked to maintain him and to pay his childcare. He stayed with his babysitter, and they arrested me. I went in front of a federal judge where they accused me of using a false social security number. It had my name and date of birth, but it was only a number I needed to be able to find work.
What went through your mind when immigration arrested you?
The previous day, I had talked to my mother on the phone, and I was telling her that I wanted to leave because it was so difficult. What I earned was barely sufficient to pay my bills, my rent, and my car broke down all the time. And to have to pay for childcare for SaulitoI would pay about $50 a week. I had to buy lunch for him and for myself, I had to pay the rent and gas for the car every week. At the time, I paid about $25 for gas.
It was difficult for me, and I spoke to my mother and told her I wanted to leave, you see, because I felt I was earning well and I had a salary, but it didn’t make ends meet. And that is when my mother told me that Saulito could live better. “Now it is only because he is little and you need someone to look after him, but wait awhile until he grows up. You will find another way when he goes to school.”
I felt that something was going to happen to me, but I didn’t know what. All those nights I prayed a lot, you see. I was thinking that night, and in my prayers I asked God to help me because I knew something would happen to me. And that day when immigration came, I only thought that that is what God had for me, and to face it was the most important thing for me. Because I am well, my health is good, and whatever needs to happen, if I have to go back to my country or if I have to stay here, I will be able to go on.
The saddest thing is that your life changesit is such a huge turn. Because it is as if suddenly, what are you going to do with your things, your bed, the things that you buy for your son, his television, his movies? It is as if you leave an entire life and all goes to the garbage and you have nothing with you. I had to give away all my things, everything, I gave it all away because I didn’t know if I would have to leave. We were left with nothing except for the clothes we had for winter, and Saulito’s television and his movies and toys. And I only had the documents which I had stored, you see.
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. At that moment, I thought, where is the humanity, where are the humans? Why treat a person like he/she is a criminal? Since all I have done is to work to survive and to maintain my son. For me it has been difficult to think why they treat us in this way, all of us who are immigrants.
What was Saulito’s reaction to all this?
When they were interrogating me, Saulito was still asleep. He was 3 years old, but almost 4, because in December 18 he turned 4. 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 and said, “Who are those people?” Since he started panicking, I hugged him and told him to calm down and to not ask me questions please, and I hugged him very hard. That they would take me and that he would stay with the babysitter. He was very nervous and every time a policeman would look at him, he would say, “Let’s leave because they will arrest you and I don’t want them to arrest you, I don’t want them to take you.” Now it is a little less, but before when he was really little…we have talked and I have looked for help in the church to talk to him and tell him that nothing is going to happen to him and so on. His fear always is that when he sees a policeman, he says, “Oh, they are going to arrest you and take you away,” and he pulls me. “Let’s get out of here.” This has been a part of our lives for the past three years.
What made you think it was possible to fight for your rights?
Because so many things have happened. One is because I got criminal charges when I used a false social security number. They took me in front of a judge who treated me so badly, he treated me like a criminal. I went to court for the first time when they arrested me on December 1, the second time was in January, and the third was in March, when they sentenced me to three years probation. I served my three years of probation and immigration never allowed me to go in front of a judge because I had a previous deportation order from ’97.
They never gave me the opportunity to stand before a judge. If they had given me the opportunity to stand before a judge and to speak to him and tell him the reason why I am here, for my son. To me it was unjust, because to criminalize me, to want to put me in jail, why don’t they let me see a judge? And to try to defend myself and try to stay in the United States, why don’t they let me see a judge?
Many people are confused. They think I had a court hearing and that I did not show up to my hearing, and they say, “Oh, if she had shown up to her court hearing then possibly the judge would have given her a chance to remain.” I did not have the opportunityit was already my deportation. I had to present myself with my documents, with my suitcase, all ready to be deported to Mexico. And this is unjust to me, because they never gave me the opportunity to go before a judge, never.
In my opinion, the way they have treated me has been unjust, because they have treated me like a criminal, when they have received my taxes. My job gave me a check for $3,000 that they owed me for two months of work, and they took almost $1,000 in taxes. Why do they take the taxes and accept my manual labor for nine years? Why did they accept my taxes for nine years that I contributed to social security, federal, state, and Medicare? Why do they accept my taxes but cannot accept that I have human rights, and why don’t they respect me?
Many people think that I had my son to take advantage of the system. I did not do that. What human being, at least in my opinion, would do that? I give thanks to God because I am a mother thanks to him. And I have to defend my son, and I have to defend myself as well, so they will respect me, because it is not just. I know that my country has to set a firm stance so that we should not have to come to the United States, and they have also not given us the opportunity in the U.S. to come here legally.
Many people come on a visa and stay, but I did not have that opportunity. First, because I did not have any money. But you think about what will happen with our lives, with Saulito’s, with mine. First of all, I don’t want him to lose his language. Because he was born here in the U.S., and in that way, no matter what happens, he is an American citizen, and he has a right to be here in this country, as an American citizen. I am his father, his mother, and I have a right to be with him. If they deport me, they are forcing him to be deported as well. I know that in my country, we will be able to survive and to live with dignity. But he will not have the education of his language. When he grows up, and he wants to return, how is he going to come back? The samewithout being able to speak the language, without having the opportunity to work, even though he is an American citizen? And what will become of him? When he grows up, he will have to depend on welfare, because he will not have enough to pay his rent, pay his bills, and I don’t want him to be like that. I want him to be a person with a good education to be able to compete with any other American citizen who is here in this country.
I know that we can survive in Mexico, but there are no opportunities for education. Here it is easier because I can work and I can have a salary. In Mexico I don’t know if I would be able to get a job and our lives will be difficult there. Here there are many opportunities for work. They don’t exist in my country, and that is why I can’t offer him a good future there. Perhaps a better life in terms of tranquility. He won’t run the risk of getting involved with a gang, because the town that I am from is very peaceful. But in respect to education, that is what I won’t be able to offer him. As an American citizen, he has many opportunities for a better education here.
I don’t have the resources to send him here and for him to be with me during his vacations. He is little, he needs me when he is small. When he is 21 years old, he won’t need me. I don’t have a fantasy that he will grow up, and he will take care of my documents. No. I have never thought that. If I was a person who could think that I should have a child just so they can take care of my documents, well then I would have found a husband to take care of my documents. It would be easier. Why wait 21 years? Better to find some guy, an American citizen, to take care of my documents. But I am not that way. I don’t look for a way to stay in this country that way. It is not my interest to stay in the United States whichever way possible. No. I am only fighting for what is the truth. Because why is it that the United States, for more than two decades, has allowed us, undocumented immigrants, to arrive to this country and now they don’t want to take responsibility. We have had children here, and we have formed families, and what is the responsibility of the United States?
What do you think of people like the Minutemen who have come to protest you?
People who have hatred have never known God. I only ask God to have compassion for them, because they are people with hatred in their hearts. They don’t know the love of a mother towards a child or a father towards a child. I don’t know if they have children or not. But it is as if they don’t know that love of a mother or father, of a family. They don’t know that love. And there is only that hatred, and many of them are being paid by someone who only feels hatred towards our communities.
What has Saul learned from your example?
It’s as if he has learned that within his community there are a lot of needs and the most important need is family unity. Because he knows children who live in difficult situations and it is not just. When he was little he would ask me why we had to keep changing houses or why we have to live there. Because from the moment of my arrest, I lived in more than four houses, because I didn’t have enough to pay the rent. The church always helped me a lot.
He knows that we have to continue with those changes. He is always thinking that he wants to return to live where he lived beforehe always says, “I have to return to live in my home.” And it is like, no, we no longer have a place to live. If God is willing we will stay and go to live somewhere else. He has learned to be very strong. He sees me and he has learned to do his work as well. To pass out the flyers in the community about what we are doing, to collect donations, to learn about the movement, to lobby in Washington. He knows the offices where Congress is at in Washington, where the Senate is. Here in Chicago he knows where immigration is located, where the federal building is, where the senators are. He has learned so many things. I think that in the United States there aren’t many children who know so much like the children of the campaign of Latino families. He has learned many things.
Are you happy?
Yes, I am happy because I am with him, we are together. Since I can’t go out, sometimes I feel desperate because I can’t take him somewhere or buy him the things that he needs. But here they help me a lot. There are a lot of people who help me a lot. In the morning there is always someone who takes him to school and always picks him up. The support that I have is immense.
Translation by Viviana Rennella
Reprinted from ColorLines, The national newsmagainze on race and politics (http://colorlines.com/index.php). Published by Applied Research Center