By Larisa Casillas
New America Media
For one year Elvira Arellano lived in a church in Chicago to avoid deportation and separation from her 8-year-old son, Saul, who is an American citizen. In August 2007, she left Chicago to travel the country and speak about the need for immigration reform. One evening after speaking at a church in Los Angeles, she was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported back to Mexico. Elvira’s deportation has made her the face of a national debate on legalization.
Elvira is from a small town in Michoacán, Mexico called San Miguel Curahuango. She was 22 when she immigrated to the U.S. for the first time in 1997. She had no family in the U.S. or anyone else who could help her enter the country. She is a low-skilled worker with limited English skills and under the current immigration system, Elvira had no chance of entering the U.S. legally or once here, adjusting her status.
Elvira worked at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport cleaning planes. She had a son. She became active in her community, most notably becoming president of a community organization working for immigration reform called United Latino Family. Like millions of immigrants before her, Elvira came to the U.S. and created a new life for herself. She supported her parents by sending remittances.
Like so many people before her, Elvira confronted a difficult life in the United States, which included discrimination, poverty and social marginalization. She probably suffered a great amount of stress and loneliness from being away from her family. Yet, she not only stayed in the U.S., she became involved in the struggle to change our current system.
Elvira has captured the imagination of many immigrants, mostly Latino and mostly Mexican, because her story is so typical.
She was raised and lived in a small rural town where the economy was based on agriculture. She is from the state of Michoacan, Mexico, where the economy has traditionally been based on agriculture, but since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, many small farmers who made a living growing their food and selling it a local markets, have been forced to leave their land and migrate to larger cities, and in some cases travel to the U.S. In fact, Michoacan loses 20,000 of its residents every year to the United States.
Corn, a staple in the Mexican diet, is a classic example of how NAFTA has hurt small farmers in Mexico. Mexican corn farmers cannot compete with American agro-businesses due in part to the subsidies that these businesses receive as policy by the American government. As a result, corn imported from the United States has caused the price of corn to drop dramatically in Mexico. Mexican farmers actually experienced a decline in earnings of 70 percent between 1994 and 2001. It is no surprise that more than one million Mexicans have stopped producing corn and many of them are making their way north to the United States.
Knowing this, it is no wonder that securing the U.S.-Mexico border has not slowed the migration flow, but rather made the trek much more dangerous for people and caused a greater number of deaths than ever. If our immigration system is to be updated and fixed, we need to take a look at the root causes of migration, including our economic and foreign policies that create situations forcing people to leave their homes. We must also look at ways to allow for immigrants like Elvira to come to the U.S. and work and safely create a life for herself and her family. We must also look at the reasons why others migrate. The wait for a person to join their family in the U.S. can be as long as 20 years for some. Experts say this is one of the reasons why so many people enter the U.S. with a tourist or student visa and overstay. The wait becomes unbearable.
The Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition (BAIRC) helped to organize a rally and vigil on Wednesday, September 12, in San Francisco. Activists and immigrants joined many others who throughout the country held similar rallies and vigils, as well as marches and community forums. These were intended to call attention to the need to update the current immigration system. The rally call on that day was, “Todos somos Elvira,” or “We are all Elvira” and indeed, this rally call rings true for some many immigrants and children of immigrants today.
Larisa Casillas is the Director of Bay Area Immigrants Rights Coalition (BAIRC).