Immigrant Activist's Deportation Stirs Both Sides of the Border

( [email protected] ) Aug 23, 2007 05:08 AM EDT
The deportation of an illegal immigrant from Mexico who spent over a year under the protection of a Methodist church has revived calls from both sides of the border for changes to U.S. immigration laws.
Activists and others appear to support the cause of Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who was arrested and deported Sunday, at a news conference at Los Angeles' Plaza Church Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2007. From left are Alfred Falcon-Colin of the Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamerica (COFEM), Hee Joo Yoon of the Korean Resource Center, Angela Sanbrano of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, and Javier Rodriguez of the March 25 Coalition. (Photo: AP Images / Reed Saxon)

The deportation of an illegal immigrant from Mexico who spent over a year under the protection of a Methodist church has revived calls from both sides of the border for changes to U.S. immigration laws.

On Wednesday, a Mexican Senate committee passed a measure urging President Felipe Calderon to send a diplomatic note to the United States protesting the deportation of 32-year-old Elvira Arellano, who became an activist and a national symbol for illegal immigrant parents by defying her deportation order and speaking out from her sanctuary in the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago.

The committee also approved a scholarship to help her 8-year-old U.S.-born son, Saul, who is an American citizen and stayed in the United States.

"We cannot remain quiet in view of this injustice and must ask for firm action from our authorities," Mexican Sen. Humberto Zazue said, according to The Associated Press.

On Sunday, shortly after she spoke at an immigrant rights rally in Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, also known as La Placita, in Los Angeles, Arellano was arrested and deported to Tijuana, across the border from San Diego.

The immigration activist made the trip to California – the first time she emerged from her Chicago Methodist sanctuary since she sought refuge in Aug. 15, 2006 – to attend the rally and to speak at several churches.

“She has been deported. She is free and in Tijuana,” confirmed the Rev. Walter Coleman, pastor of Adalberto United Methodist Church, according to NBC news. “She is in good spirits. She is ready to continue the struggle against the separation of families from the other side of the border.”

While supporters hail Arellano as a Mexican Rosa Parks, critics have denounced her as a lawbreaker who flaunts her crime in the face of government officials by holding press conferences.

“She broke the law. You cannot use your child as a human shield to ignore immigration laws,” said Joseph Turner, Western regional coordinator of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“You cannot say: I have a child who is an American citizen. That makes me immune to any law I violated,” Turner argued.

Opponents further add that Arellano and other illegal immigrant parents can simply take their child with them back to Mexico to avoid separation.

However, Arellano contends that if she takes her son with her back to Mexico then he will lose his rights as a U.S. citizen.

With at least 3.1 million children in the United States who have one or more parents in the country illegally – according to the 2006 report by the Pew Hispanic Center – immigrant rights activists say Arellano supporters feel she is representing them when they were afraid to speak out.

They know “any day that could be you,” said Andrea Mercado of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a local immigrant rights organization made up of Latina immigrants. Mujeres Unidas y Activas was part of a coalition that organized a protest Tuesday afternoon in the San Francisco Bay area to express their disapproval of Arellano’s deportation.

Protests were also held in Chicago and Los Angeles following Arellano’s deportation.

Although supporters have called Arellano's deportation a blow, Mercado told that it had mobilized the community despite a climate of fear and silence that prevails among undocumented immigrants.

"Hers is one of many stories," she said.

Earlier this summer, President Bush and a group of bipartisan senators had tried to push through Congress an immigration reform bill that would have provided a pathway for illegal immigrants to gain legal status while beefing up border security and enacting penalties for those crossing the border illegally.

Fierce opposition to the bill from conservative Republicans who called the legislation amnesty had derailed the legislation, however, leaving the emotionally-charged immigration problem as a potential key issue during the presidential race and a matter for the next administration to contend with.

The immigration problem has also spurred some churches to act. In May, churches in five big U.S. cities – Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, and New York – announced their intention to protect illegal immigrants from deportation, offering their buildings as sanctuary if need be.

The "New Sanctuary Movement,” as the effort is called, is loosely based on a movement in the 1980s, when churches harbored Central American refugees fleeing wars in their home countries. Organizers of the current movement include members of the Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and other faiths.

While some have called the effort “radical hospitality,” others have called it misguided.

The faith groups "don't seem to realize that they are being charitable with someone else's resources, and that's not charity," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limits on immigration.

"We are talking about illegal immigrants taking someone else's job, filling up the classroom of someone else's child," he said, according to AP.

And individuals such as Jim Hayes, director of ICE in Los Angeles, are saying "proper perspective" should be placed on the woman's case.

Using a false identity, as in the case of Arellano, who was convicted of using someone else's Social Security number, can be a threat to national security, he said.

"We don't think she's a martyr," Hayes said, according to AP. "She was a criminal fugitive who is in violation of the law."

Despite criticism and Arellano’s deportation, immigration activists said they will continue Arellano's plan to go to Washington, D.C., and take part in a prayer meeting and rally for immigration reform on Sept. 12. They also called for a national boycott on that date.

Contributor Michelle Vu in Washington contributed to this article.