Elvira and Saul Arellano

MEXICO CITY (WOMENSENEWS)–Elvira Arellano had planned to march in Washington this week to demand immigration reform.

Instead, following her high-profile deportation from the United States in August, she has been meeting with Mexico’s president and lawmakers and speaking with media and the public while trying to make a new home in Mexico after living for a decade north of the border.

But she hasn’t forgotten the proceedings in Washington or her campaign to ease immigration restrictions and keep families like hers intact.

Barred from returning to the United States for 20 years, the 32-year-old single mother and activist sent her U.S.-born 8-year-old son, Saul, to Washington to help lead demonstrations this week in the halls of Congress and attend congressional hearings that began on Sept 6.

Saul went to Washington with his family pastor, the Rev. Walter Coleman, and his godmother, Emma Lozano, who is a Chicago-based immigrant rights activist.

Saul turns shy in front of press microphones and cameras, but he was at the head of the Capitol Hill protest on Sept. 12, representing an estimated 4 to 5 million U.S.-citizen children threatened with having one or both parents deported for lack of documentation.

Major U.S. industries, from farms to hospitals to hotels, depend on undocumented migrant workers, and President George W. Bush has backed legislation to create a guest-worker program and legalize their status.

Government Crackdown

But amid complaints from anti-immigration forces, including some Republican leaders, that the administration has failed to enforce existing laws, the government has begun cracking down on illegal immigrants and employers who hire them.

Under new Department of Homeland Security regulations taking effect this month, employers will face criminal charges if they fail to fire workers with unjustifiable discrepancies in their Social Security identification numbers.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency deported more than 220,000 undocumented people in the first 10 months of this fiscal year as part of a recent crackdown on illegal immigrants. Immigration activists say 240,000 families have now had loved ones deported.

Many of those forcibly returned are single mothers like Arellano, who face the choice of leaving their U.S.-born children with family or friends or taking them back to impoverished countries like Mexico, where opportunities for education are fewer and economic expectations lower.

Rights activists say unjust laws and abuses against migrants are more acute for women.

"It’s more complicated for women," said Marta Sanchez, who with Arellano and other activists founded the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement in Mexico City in August to work for U.S. immigration reform. "The children have never been in Mexico; their lives are in the U.S. If the mother doesn’t have a support network in Mexico, she has no way to start over."

Activist Caught in the Net

Arellano took sanctuary in Chicago church in 2006.

Arellano may have been just one more person caught in that net but she wasn’t just anyone.

Over the past year Arellano has emerged as the face of a campaign to legalize some 12 million undocumented migrants and allow families like hers to stay together in the United States, and to untangle the politics of immigration from those of fighting al-Qaida and terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Arellano’s supporters credit her with reviving the immigration debate in Congress after a comprehensive reform bill died earlier this year.

She bristles at any connection between her circumstances and threats to international security.

"I am not a terrorist," she told reporters in Mexico City in August. "We went looking for work in a country that wasn’t ours, but we are not criminals. What is the crime in wanting a better future for our families? Millions of families are living this crisis in the United States every day."

A devout Christian, she has galvanized a movement of church leaders, immigrant rights groups and lawmakers in Mexico and the United States who call the U.S. immigration system faulty and unjust.

"We are all Elvira Arellano," is their rallying cry.

They say current law criminalizes undocumented migrants unjustly, complicating their efforts to establish legal residency in the United States.

But supporters of the new enforcement efforts say Arellano lost all rights to remain in the United States after she repeatedly broke U.S. immigration laws.

"I don’t think because she comes here and has a child that she somehow deserves to be treated any different from anybody else who has broken the law. What part of illegal don’t people understand?" said U.S. Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, a California Republican who heads the Immigration Reform Caucus and won his seat in 2006 largely on a campaign for stronger border controls. He also supports limiting birthright citizenship only to children of U.S. citizens and legal residents.

‘Ambassador for Peace’

Arellano met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Aug. 28 and has asked his government to give her diplomatic status to allow her to return legally to the United States as an "ambassador for peace, justice and hope for many of our people."

Mexico has made no public pronouncement on her petition, although the government has offered her financial support. She has refused offers of a government scholarship for her son and other direct aid, saying that her struggle is on behalf of all undocumented immigrants in the United States. Rather, she is urging the Mexican government to step up pressure on U.S. leaders to legalize the status of undocumented workers and end widespread deportations.

Border officials argue that undocumented immigrants like Arellano put their own families at risk.

"She willfully violated U.S. immigration laws and is now facing the consequences of those illegal actions," said Lauren Mack, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "It’s something we deal with on a daily basis, and it’s sad because U.S. citizen children face the consequences of their parents’ decision to enter the country illegally or stay here illegally. We as an agency don’t separate families. It’s the consequence of the parents’ illegal activity."

Mexican lawmakers want the U.S. government to halt the offensive against undocumented immigrants, saying that their home economy cannot absorb the deportees. "We don’t have 4 million jobs here to solve the security problem as the U.S. wants," said Mexican Congressman Jose Jacques.

Arellano’s problems with U.S. authorities began in 2002 when she was arrested and convicted of using a fake Social Security number while working cleaning planes at the O’Hare airport in Chicago. She was ordered to surrender to authorities in August 2006 but instead took refuge in the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago.

Last month, though, she left her sanctuary to go to Los Angeles to demonstrate for immigration reform. She was arrested and deported on Aug. 19.

Her son first stayed behind with Lozano, his godmother, but joined his mother later in August and appears by her side at press conferences. With a U.S. passport, he is free to return to his hometown of Chicago for summer school next year but will remain with Arellano for now.

"He knows I need him, he is my strength, and he needs me too," Arellano said. "We want to continue the fight together from here."

Lorraine Orlandi is a freelance reporter who has covered human rights, politics and related stories in Latin America for the past 10 years. She lives in Mexico City.


For more information:

"Women Raise Heat on Immigration Debate":

Somos Un Pueblo (We Are a Village):

New Sanctuary Movement:

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