The Case of Elvira Arellano

Moises Duarte may not be the best known among the 5,000 people who’ve come to a Chicago church to show support Elvira Arellano’s vigil against a deportation order.

A given day might see elected officials, diplomats from the Venezuelan consulate, journalists from the New York Times or European national radio services, or representatives of the Latino and left-wing press.

But during a church service on a humid, cloudy Saturday afternoon in late August, it was Duarte, a 65-year-old immigrant from the state of Guerrero, Mexico, who best expressed the widespread feelings of solidarity, dignity and defiance aroused among immigrants and their supporters by Arellano’s public refusal to return to Mexico with her U.S.-born son, 7-year-old Saul.

After a raspy prayer of thanks offered by Arellano–her voice worn down by interviews and bronchitis–Duarte responded to the pastor’s invitation for others to speak. As often is the case at the Adalberto United Methodist Church, the service blended into a discussion of the struggle for social justice, as Duarte recounted the rising death toll on the U.S.-Mexican border.

His voice barely audible over the six ceiling fans that strained to cool the small storefront church, Duarte described how increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants are forced to cross the Arizona desert to avoid the increasingly militarized U.S. Border Patrol.

Meanwhile, Arellano’s son Saul, who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, was in the corner behind the pulpit, slowly turning a sign that read, “Stop The Racist Deportations!”

After the service, Duarte showed Arellano his meticulously organized clipping book, with articles from Spanish language newspapers documenting the lives lost on the border. He pointed to one story in La Raza newspaper that he finds especially disturbing: the death of Herminia Silva, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant who passed after suffering a spinal injury while crossing the border in the Arizona desert along with her 10-year-old daughter, Adriana.

It was an example, Duarte said, of how people are dying because of the “foolishness” of immigration laws. Given prompt medical attention, the injury wouldn’t have been life-threatening. But the immigrant smuggler, or coyote, who got mother and daughter over the border did nothing to help.

Thus, soon after reuniting with her husband in Chicago, Herminia Silva lay dying in a hospital bed–where she was pictured in a news photo, along with daughter Adriana, somehow managing a smile. Elvira Arellano took a long look at the photo, drew in a deep breath, and thanked Moises Duarte for coming.

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The tragedy of Herminia Silva and other immigrant families separated by the maze of U.S. immigration laws is the reason that Elvira Arellano says that her struggle about her alone.

“I’m not the only one affected. I’m part of the struggle for the legalization,” she said in an interview at the National Immigrant Rights Strategy Convention, held just outside Chicago, a couple days before she began her vigil August 15. “I want my community to be able to be legalized and remain here with their families.”

It isn’t the first time that the border has divided Arellano’s family. Her grandfather was a guest worker in the bracero program, a system which brought “temporary” Mexican workers into the U.S. to do agricultural labor from 1942 to 1964.

Now, she says, economic conditions in Michoacan and throughout Mexico are driving immigration out of the country. “In my town, the principle base of the economy is farming,” she said. “My father is a farmer, and disgracefully, the free trade agreement has hurt them. They can’t compete with the grains and corn that the United States exports into my country. It’s sad, but they have no resources with which to keep working on the land and produce.”

Adding to the pressures on Arellano’s family is the fact that her father has muscular dystrophy and can’t walk. “I wanted to come to the United States because I wanted to give something better to my parents, in order to help my father,” she said. If she were to accept deportation and return to Mexico with her son Saul, “I would not be able to offer him a dignified future,” she said.

Arellano’s determination to escape rural poverty led her to return to the U.S. without papers after having been deported previously.

Arellano’s second arrest by immigration authorities took place back in 2002, at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where she worked as a janitor. Billed as a step toward improved airport security following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the raid not only cost Arellano her job, but also led to charges that she violated immigration law.

Today, workplace raids and deportations are once again making headlines as the beleaguered Bush administration tries to appease the Republican right with a crackdown, while trying to push legislation with a guest worker program demanded by Corporate America.

In what was seen by many immigrant rights activists as a response to the mass protests for immigrant rights in March, the Bureau of Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) carried out raids at the IFCO paper packaging company near Chicago on April 19, arresting 26. Eleven were given orders of deportation, but won a one-year stay after activists rallied to their support.

However, immigration raids in smaller cities with more recent immigrant populations have gone unchallenged. In Whitewater, Wis., for example, ICE agents and local law enforcement arrested 25 undocumented Mexican workers August 8 at the Star Packaging plant and issued orders of deportation–including several mothers of citizen children.

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What’s exceptional about Arellano isn’t her situation, but the fact that she got in touch with organizers–and became an organizer herself. Now with a small child, Arellano was determined to fight a second deportation. She soon joined Adalberto Church, known for its ties to social movements.

Working with the veteran Chicago Latina organizer Emma Lozano of Centro Sin Fronteras, she founded the group La Familia Latina Unida. Its aim is providing assistance for the families of an estimated 5 million children of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Of those kids, an estimated 3.1 million are U.S.-born, and therefore are citizens.

There’s a phrase that the anti-immigrant right uses for these citizen children of the undocumented: “anchor babies,” a term that echoes, intentionally or not, an old racist term for African American kids. According to immigrant-bashing Rep. Tom Trancredo (R-Col.), “anchor babies” are borne by immigrant mothers like Arellano so the mothers can remain in the U.S. without the risk of deportation.

It’s not just Tancredo and the right that makes this argument. Liberal Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote of Arellano: “She’s not a particularly good cause celebre, as these things go. She has twice entered the country illegally, has been convicted of carrying a false Social Security card, speaks very poor English for someone who has been in this country nine years, and she plays her so-called ‘anchor baby,’ a 7-year-old son who is a U.S. citizen because he was born here, as her trump card.”

The reality is that only in rare cases do the undocumented avoid a deportation order because they have U.S.-born children, according to Subhash Kateel, a founder of Families for Freedom, a New York-based group formed after the September 11, 2001 attacks to fight the subsequent wave of deportations in an effort to keep immigrant families together.

The rise in deportations–including mothers of citizen children–long predates 9/11. It began with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, passed by the Republican-controlled Congress and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton. “The enforcement has been increasing exponentially since 1996,” said Kateel, “and just got that much worse [after 9/11]. That came from a Democratic president.”

Between 1996 and 2004–the latest date for which government statistics are available–more than 1 million people were deported. Most of those deported had children, Kateel said.

“There is a longstanding rumor that if you’ve been in the country for 10 years and you have U.S. citizen children, they can’t deport you,” he said. “What the law really says, is that…they have a choice to deport you if [deportation] will mean an extreme or unusual hardship for a U.S. citizen child”–typically, a severe or terminal illness.

If mothers of citizen children are already routinely deported, the question arises as to why Tom Tancredo seeks to remove automatic citizenship for U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.

The proposal–which can be found under the “Anchor Babies” heading on Tancredo’s Team America Political Action Committee Web site–would involve changing the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the measure that outlawed slavery and guaranteed equal protection under the law, the cornerstone of subsequent civil rights legislation.

Of course, it took the U.S. government nearly a century to enforce the 14th Amendment by outlawing legal segregation of African Americans. If Tancredo and his allies have their way, though, a new second-class citizenship–or worse–for millions of working people would again be the law of the land once again.

The right’s agenda of rolling back civil rights has created common ground for the immigrant rights movement and African Americans. Black leaders, including Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have been public supporters of immigrant rights. Members of the Nation of Islam regularly come to the Adalberto Church to support Arellano’s vigil.

Some Black voices, however, have joined the anti-immigrant backlash. Among them is Mary Mitchell, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who denounced Arellano’s comparison of her struggle to that of Rosa Parks, who defied segregation in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. “As they say in the streets, Arellano is pimping the system,” Mitchell wrote. “She is using Rosa Parks’ name to buy herself more time, and that disgusts me.”

In fact, said Beti Guevara, associate pastor at Adalberto, Arellano first learned about Parks at a memorial service held for her last October at Chicago’s Beloved Community Christian Church, where U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) is pastor. The keynote speaker was Mary Mitchell. “Elvira learned Rosa Parks 101 from Mary Mitchell,” Guevara said.

Just days after Mitchell’s column appeared, Clergy Speaks Interdenominational, a group of leading Black clergy, visited Adalberto to pray with Arellano. Rush, who first rose to prominence as a leader of the local Black Panther Party in the 1960s, has also publicly supported Arellano.

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Other leading Democratic politicians’ letters of support for Arellano are displayed prominently all over Adalberto Church.

There’s a letter to immigration authorities from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the son of a Serbian immigrant, who’s facing a tough reelection campaign, backing Arellano and others in a similar plight.

There’s also a letter from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who’s tried to refuel his father’s Democratic Party machine with the help of loyalists in the Hispanic Democratic Organization–although some of these backers currently face corruption charges.

There are several letters from Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the city’s most prominent Latino politician. An activist in the Puerto Rican community before entering electoral politics, Gutierrez years ago assumed the role of advocate for Chicago’s burgeoning Latino community.

Although his support for the proposed guest worker program has alienated many immigrant rights activists in Chicago, Gutierrez remains popular among the Mexican community, whose votes would be key for his possible challenge to Daley in next year’s mayoral race.

Conspicuous by its absence are letters from Illinois’ liberal Democratic senators, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama–themselves the sons of immigrants, as they often point out in speeches at immigrant rights rallies.

Durbin, who earlier sponsored a private bill to delay Arellano’s deportation because of her son’s medical condition, now refuses to support Gutierrez’s private bill to win her a new stay. “We cannot fix the injustices of this system with private bills,” Durbin said in a statement. “Only comprehensive immigration reform can permanently remedy this situation.”

Obama made took a similar line. “I don’t feel comfortable carving out an exception for one person when there are hundreds of thousands of people just in the Chicago region alone who would want a similar exemption,” he said in a speech.

The claim that Arellano is seeking help for only herself is completely mistaken, said Rev. Walter “Slim” Coleman, pastor of Adalberto Church, a longtime community activist and an informal adviser to the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. “She is not holed up, she is not hiding, she is taking a position of conscience,” Coleman said. “Our demand is for a moratorium on deportations, raids, arrests and sanctions until they fix the law–until they complete the process that the Republican Congress has stalled.”

However, Subhash Kateel of Families for Freedom rejects the notion that the current legislation–the amended version of Hagel-Martinez, or S 2611–would help immigrant families remain united.

On the contrary, by excluding some 2 million people from any legal status and forcing millions more into a guest worker program, it further complicates the already labyrinthine process of uniting immigrant families. What’s more, S 2611 would expand the border wall and increase enforcement by expanding the list of “aggravated felonies” that are deportable offenses for green card holders.

“Most people think aggravated felonies are something violent, like murder,” Kateel said. “But it could be shoplifting.” He added, “Nothing in the immigration reform bills on the table right now, whether the most liberal or most conservative, do anything to protect Ms. Arellano.”

In fact, a growing number of immigrant rights groups that initially supported Hagel Martinez have concluded that no legislation this year is better than further restrictions on immigrant rights packaged as “comprehensive reform,” as its supporters call it.

In this context, support for Elvira Arellano has emerged as a rallying point for the planned weekend of Labor Day protests coordinated by the new National Alliance for Immigrant Rights (NAIR), founded in Chicago in mid-August by a collection of grassroots local groups and representatives of labor organizations.

In Los Angeles, the March 25 Coalition will hold a women’s march to highlight the struggle of Arellano and other mothers facing deportation and being forced to choose between uprooting their children and leaving them behind. Arellano’s son Saul will attend the march.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of Saul aims to challenge the government’s policy of effectively deporting the citizen children of undocumented immigrants by ordering their mothers to leave the country. Resolution of the lawsuit for Saul seems a long way off, and the GOP-run Congress will likely dig in on any attempt to pass a private bill, even if Sens. Durbin and Obama feel pressure to back it. For her part, Arellano urges immigrants who are citizens to register and vote.

In any case, Arellano’s vigil has already become a national issue, with NAIR calling for a moratorium on raids and deportations. It’s an important focus for a new movement that is seeking to turn the mass immigration marches into rooted, local organizations that can function day to day.

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The need for such organizing was in evidence in Whitewater, Wis., scene of the August 8 ICE raid at Star Packaging.

It fell to Rev. Kenneth Abarca, pastor of Hispanic Ministries at Whitewater Community Church, to organize the initial support for some of the 25 workers arrested–including finding a place to stay for the 1-year-old son whose parents were arrested and detained.

After nine days behind bars, the parents were able to post the $6,000 bail for the woman and $7,000 for the man by selling their car and most of their belongings and taking out a loan. Her sister–who also has a child–was also detained.

Defending Latino immigrants is a new challenge for Whitewater Community Church, which launched its Spanish ministry just four years ago to support the new and growing community. Where the Adalberto church has long been a political hub in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, the Whitewater church currently meets in a high school while its new building is being constructed.

Now it’s trying to support the women, who have been ordered to leave the U.S. within six months, after building a life in Whitewater for the past five years.

“It’s difficult here,” said the mother of a 1-year-old and 5-year-old. “There is much racism here against Mexicans. We can’t work [while under an order of deportation], because to do so would have consequences.”

“We have to continue to struggle,” she said, for the rights of Mexicans to come to the U.S. and work. “There’s been enough suffering and dying in the desert.”

LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at:




LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker