CHICAGO (AP) — An illegal alien who took refuge in a church one year ago to escape deportation said yesterday that she intends to leave her sanctuary soon to lobby Congress for immigration reform, even if that means being arrested.
Elvira Arellano has said she feared being separated from her 8-year-old son, Saul, when she asked the Adalberto United Methodist Church for help. Yesterday, the anniversary of her move into the church, she announced she planned to leave on Sept. 12 to travel to Washington.
“If this government would separate me from my son, let them do it in front of the men and women who have the responsibility to fix this broken law and uphold the principles of human dignity,” Miss Arellano, 32, said, reading in English from a prepared statement.
Miss Arellano’s public defiance has drawn attention to the cases of illegal aliens whose children, like Saul, are U.S. citizens. She has reignited an interest in a sanctuary movement across the United States, gone on hunger strikes, written dozens of letters and sent her son with other activists to Mexico and Washington to talk to lawmakers.
“She’s a household figure at this point and her story is well known because people can relate to it,” said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.
But Miss Arellano also has drawn criticism from people who say she broke the law and has exploited Saul by having him speak at press conferences.
She came to the United States illegally in 1997, was deported, but then returned. She moved to Illinois in 2000 because she had friends in the Chicago area, and she took a job cleaning planes at O’Hare International Airport.
In 2002, Miss Arellano was arrested at O’Hare and later convicted of working under a false Social Security number. She was to surrender to authorities last August to be deported to Mexico but instead took refuge in the church.
It isn’t clear how she would get to Washington next month, but she likely won’t be flying, the Rev. Walter Coleman said. He and others worry that Miss Arellano will be arrested, but she plans to go anyway.
Whether she will continue her sanctuary at the church after that also isn’t clear.
Miss Arellano said she had been too comfortable and needs to “join the struggle” outside. She doesn’t consider herself a symbol, just “a single mother who has a child who’s an American citizen.”
At times she has feared for her and Saul’s safety, she said. In December, neighborhood residents said they saw U.S. marshals taking photos of the church. Federal agents denied the charges, but immigration activists took up 24-hour vigils outside.
Miss Arellano has no case pending to become a legal resident.
“I’m hoping for an immigration bill to pass,” she said.