LOS ANGELES — An illegal immigrant who took refuge in a Chicago church for a year to avoid being separated from her U.S.-born son has been deported to Mexico, the church’s pastor said.
Elvira Arellano became an activist and a national symbol for illegal immigrant parents as she defied her deportation order and spoke out from her religious sanctuary. She held a news conference last week to announce that she would finally leave the church to try to lobby U.S. lawmakers for change.
She had just spoken at a Los Angeles rally when she was arrested Sunday outside Our Lady Queen of Angels church and deported, said the Rev. Walter Coleman, pastor of Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago, where Arellano had been living.
“She is free and in Tijuana,” said Coleman, who said he spoke to her on the phone. “She is in good spirits. She is ready to continue the struggle against the separation of families from the other side of the border.”
Her 8-year-old son, Saul, is now living with Coleman’s family. During a news conference in Los Angeles after Arellano’s arrest, the boy hid behind the pastor’s wife and wiped away tears.
Arellano had said on Saturday that she was not afraid of being taken into custody by immigration agents.
“From the time I took sanctuary, the possibility has existed that they arrest me in the place and time they want,” she said in Spanish. “I only have two choices. I either go to my country, Mexico, or stay and keep fighting. I decided to stay and fight.”
Arellano, 32, arrived in Washington state illegally in 1997. She was deported to Mexico shortly afterward, but returned and moved to Illinois in 2000, taking a job cleaning planes at O’Hare International Airport.
She was arrested in 2002 at O’Hare and convicted of working under a false Social Security number. She was to surrender to authorities last August but instead sought refuge at the church on Aug. 15, 2006.
She had not left the church property until she decided to travel by car to Los Angeles, Coleman said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed her arrest and said she was deported Sunday night through San Diego’s San Ysidro border crossing. The discussions there included Luis Cabrera, Mexico’s general consul in San Diego, and Robin Baker, ICE’s director of detention and removals in San Diego, ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said.
“Obviously this was a woman who didn’t want to go. They wanted to make sure any possible legal avenue that may have been open to her was closed,” Mack said. “This was a very, very sensitive removal for us as well as Mexico.”
Outside an ICE office in Chicago on Monday, about 50 people protested Arellano’s deportation. “It wakes us up to do something,” said Bertha Rangel, who brought her three young children to the rally.
Vows to fight from Mexico
Arellano is staying with a friend in Tijuana, Coleman said. He said she had brought to light her struggle, and for that, “she has won a victory.”
“She’ll be organizing on the Mexican side of the border while we’re organizing in the (United) States,” Coleman said Monday. “She’ll be talking to organizations throughout Mexico and congressmen in Mexico City.”
Immigration activists said Monday they will continue Arellano’s original plan to go to Washington, D.C., and take part in a prayer meeting and rally Sept. 12. They also called for a national boycott on that date.
“We are calling upon the population of the United States to not go to work, to not send their children to school and to not participate in commerce, either buying or selling anything,” Juan Jose Gutierrez of Latino Movement U.S.A. said during a small protest outside the downtown Los Angeles federal building.
Anti-illegal immigrant groups said the arrest was long overdue.
“Just because the woman has gone public and made an issue of the fact that she is defying law doesn’t mean the government doesn’t have to do its job,” said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limits on immigration.
Arellano has repeatedly called for a stop to immigration raids that break up families with some members who are in the U.S. legally and others illegally. She has said her son would be deprived of his rights as a U.S. citizen if he had to go to Mexico simply because she did.
While being arrested, Arellano spoke briefly with her son before submitting to authorities, said Emma Lozano, Coleman’s wife and head of immigration rights group Centro Sin Fronteras in Chicago.
“She calmed him down, hugged him and gave him a blessing,” Lozano said.
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