Monday, Dec. 25, 2006

Elvira Arellano

An Immigrant Who Found Sanctuary
A forbidding aura hangs over the ancient right of sanctuary: the rich sacredness of the precincts of the church, the ability of the clergy to send violators to damnation, the formidability of the edifice itself. Anyone who sought sanctuary in the medieval church could count on it, if only because the stone façade of the building would force pursuers to stop. None of that would seem to apply to the Adalberto United Methodist Church on West Division Street in Chicago. It is a storefront operation, composed of about two dozen small pews. You can sometimes smell the aroma of cooking food when you enter. And yet, for the last 4 1/2 months of 2006, the U.S. government could not find the strength to cross the threshold of the tiny church to seize a woman who had sought sanctuary there.

Elvira Arellano, 31, has one thing in common with many of the Christians who took refuge in medieval Europe's churches and cathedrals: she has broken the law. Nine years ago, she strolled through an untended turnstile on the U.S.-Mexico border and began the life of an undocumented worker. In the time since, she has had a son, Saul, now 8 years old, by law a U.S. citizen. In 2002, Arellano was arrested in a sweep of O'Hare International Airport for workers with false Social Security numbers. (She was earning $6.50 an hour for cleaning planes.) Sentenced to three years' probation for Social Security fraud, she was issued a deportation order. She pursued several legal reprieves, and when the last one failed on Aug. 15, she sought sanctuary in the church. She says she will not take her son back to a country she gave up for a better life; nor will she leave him to fend for himself in the U.S. "It's wrong to split up families. I'm fighting for my son, not for myself. It's a matter of principle. I don't want him treated like garbage," she says, adding, "I am a mom and a worker. I am not a terrorist."

She is now also a cause célèbre, and not just because of her confinement in the church. Earlier, as she battled to stay in the U.S., she co-founded La Familia Latina Unida (the United Latino Family), which has lobbied Congress for aid to the estimated 3 million children — U.S. citizens all — who face forcible separation from their undocumented parents under current law. Last spring Arellano addressed thousands at one of Chicago's marches against proposed anti-immigrant measures. Her image and Saul's were used in a get-out-the-Latino-vote campaign for the midterm elections. (One button read, I REGISTERED AND I WILL VOTE FOR ELVIRA ARELLANO!) Of her personal transformation through activism, she says, "I've developed nerves of ice."

The cooking you smell in the church is hers: breakfast, lunch, dinner for Saul and herself. She sends him off to school in the mornings, but won't leave the church herself for fear of arrest. She is expanding the old right of sanctuary, though it is not officially recognized under U.S. law. The medieval church offered protection for only about 30 to 40 days. During that period, arrangements had to be made for the lawbreaker to find refuge with another king or country. But Arellano insists that she will stay in Adalberto until the feds take her away by force — or the country's laws change. The future, she says, "is in God's hands." In the meantime, she has given the immigration-reform movement a human face.