Issue and Date

Revolution #58, August 27, 2006

Elvira Arellano's Defiant Stand

by Alice Woodward

Elvira Arellano

Elvira Arellano

This past week, on Tuesday, Aug. 15, Mexican-born immigrant Elvira Arellano was ordered to report to the Department of Homeland Security in Chicago and turn herself in for deportation.

Elvira publicly refused the order. Her church, Adalberto United Methodist Church in the Humboldt Park district of Chicago, opened its doors as a sanctuary. The reverend has called on others across the country to do the same for the masses of immigrants threatened and under attack.

At this moment Elvira remains in the church with her seven-year-old-son Saul. Hundreds of others have come to support her and stand with the struggle she represents. By Friday an anonymous representative from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that they would not enter the church to detain her, stating she is “no more priority than any of the other 500,000 fugitives nationally” and assuring all that they will be apprehending her “at an appropriate time and place.”

Support from California to South Carolina

Tuesday night I saw Elvira's face in a clip on the television, holding her son in her arms. The following afternoon I joined many others at Adalberto United Methodist Church who recognized that this one person's actions were incredibly significant.

Elvira Arellano

Supporters of Arellano stand in front of Adalberto United Methodist Church, Aug. 16th, 2006. (Revolution photo)

Since Elvira entered the church in the heart of Chicago's Puerto Rican neighborhood, the street has come alive with a spirit of defiant resistance. Immigrant families came with their children. Church patrons stayed for hours in support. Students arrived on their own or as part of organizations. Some people settled in to stay for hours, while others were passers-by drawn by the vibrant crowd and a full block of white satellite news vans. A young reporter from the Spanish media rushed from the church to the sidewalks to talk with others and back to her van to view footage. You could see in her face that the infectious inspiration of this story had gotten to her.

People had a sense they were part of something historic which was not just for their own nationality or group. There was a real desire to see this grow and a sense of that possibility. 

This stand, and what it represents in the struggle for the rights of millions of immigrants, has resonated throughout the country. Media coverage has extended nationally and internationally as well. Spanish language press is closely following the story. Word spread at a lightening pace among immigrant rights organizers nationally. Associated Press reported that “activists from California to South Carolina” were behind her. In Phoenix, Martín Manteca, for the group Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes) said that groups of activists have already organized vigils in support of Elvira Arellano. Delores Huerta, a well-known union leader among farmworkers, came to the church to show her support.

The March 10th Movement, a coalition of approximately 100 organizations that helped coordinate the recent mega-marches in Chicago in support of immigration reform, issued a statement saying: "We must not allow Elvira Arellano, the undocumented immigrant and leader of a movement in support of all immigrants, to be deported."

Just Stand Against an Unjust Law

In the midst of an enthusiastic crowd on the sidewalk, a representative for Elvira declared on a bullhorn “She has sparked something that I think is necessary for this whole movement. I think all the churches need to become sanctuaries. We cannot stand aside with our arms closed while they divide mother from son, father from children and wife from husband.” Many are comparing Arellano's actions to Rosa Park's historic stand. People saw this could be something like the Underground Railroad, where churches and supporters of immigrants open their doors.

ICE has said only a request from a Senator can stop the deportation order—and both Illinois Senators, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, have expressed that there is nothing they will do. Obama stated, "What I can't do is to take one person out of the hundreds of thousands who are in exactly the same situation and carve them out for special treatment. That just wouldn't be fair. That's not how we do business here in the United States."

How the U.S. “Does Business”

In 2002 Elvira had been working at O’Hare airport as a cleaning woman when she was arrested for the first time. Her arrest was part of “Operation Chicago Land Skies” which rounded up 53 immigrant employees at the airport. The fate of many of the others detained is still unknown. This was part of round-ups taking place nationally after 9/11 in the name of the “War on Terror.” There were never any official claims that connected these people to terrorists.

Arellano plead guilty to working under a false Social Security number and was given probation. She's been threatened with deportation four times since then, and received one year stays each time, in part because her seven-year-old son is a U.S. citizen with ADHD and other health problems. Since then Arellano has been an activist for immigrant rights, helping to found and becoming president of La Familia Latina Unida (United Latino Family). Thousands face the threat of their families being ripped apart. This horrific reality is reminiscent of slave days when little children were literally ripped from their mother's hands and sold.

In the U.S. today millions of immigrants are forced to live in the shadows, and treated as second-class citizens. Immigrants are rounded up and deported. They're attacked for speaking Spanish at work. They cannot get health care or driver's licenses. They are imprisoned indefinitely and murdered at the border, and those who are able to stake out an existence here are persecuted from day to day.

Outside Adalberto church were many for whom Elvira was their voice. A woman described the ways in which, due to a lack of a driver's license, she is treated as a second-class citizen every day. She cannot even get a video store membership. “It’s a shame to me, it makes me cry. When I go to the store one day, my kids ask me, ‘mommy, can you get me a movie?’ And I say ; ‘no,’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I can’t.’ How can you explain that to a child. She’s (Elvira) tired of that, and that's why she's doing this. And that's why we are here with her, cause we're tired already.”

Another Latino youth talked about his law suit against the auto parts company he worked for that threatened to fire him, and continues to harass him, for speaking Spanish to help serve Spanish-speaking customers. He said that when Nigerians come in for auto parts, the managers tell them, “We have no auto parts.”

The plans for immigrants under the Bush regime include the National Guard at the border, detention centers across the country, massive deportations and biometric identification cards. Immigrants already face severe repression, day to day discrimination, and death and rape at the border. Already this kind of repression is increasing and on a whole other scale. The New York Times reported that an official from the League of United Latin American Citizens attested, “I have never seen these type of deportations in my life.” The attacks on immigrants must be opposed.

Summer Winds and Autumn Storms

When I think of the world in which this story has come forward, the context in which someone has dared to step out, I feel breathless with anticipation, and urgency.  This comes in the wake of a huge upsurge of millions of immigrants throughout the country, as part of a growing movement and at a time when there is tremendous upheaval in Mexico and a mass outpouring in response to fraudulent elections.

This is happening in the context of the whole direction the Bush Regime is taking society. From the war in Iraq and U.S./Israeli attacks on Lebanon, to the handling of hurricane Katrina, government spying, and attacks on gay marriage. People have been outraged—and they have been paralyzed, with no way to act.

The stand Elvira Arellano is taking has come at a time when what the people here and around the world do to oppose the outrages of the Bush Regime really matters.  It shows great potential for the continuation and intensification of the immigrant rights movement in the U.S., for its just demands to be met. It represents a call and a challenge to those who increasingly see the injustices brought upon people being forced to “live in the shadows” and also to those who are sickened by the many outrages going on today.

When I think of what I've learned and seen and heard, it amounts to a palpable potential of the real basis for thousands of people to come together and truly build the movement to drive out the Bush Regime. For the “vast reservoir” of millions, as World Can't Wait's recent statement describes, to come together on October 5th. If thousands from the reservoir that was represented in that crowd of people outside Aldaberto church were to act on that day against the direction of things…thousands, moving millions. Imagine what kind of impact that could that have.

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