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For mother and son, an immigration predicament

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 28, 2006


Elvira Arellano's situation isn't all that unusual: an undocumented immigrant ordered to report to US Immigration and Customs, a single mother whose young son is a US citizen.

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But in the two weeks since Ms. Arellano entered her church in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood to avoid deportation – invoking the notion of church as sanctuary – her standoff with the US government has escalated into a public battle that has rallied activists on both sides of the immigration debate.

To supporters, her case is a symbol of a "broken" immigration system and of all the families who could be split by deportation. But critics, too, claim Arellano as a symbol – of the sort of lawbreaker they say has no place in America. In many ways, the standoff in the Chicago church neatly encapsulates – and holds a mirror to – the nation's struggle over which bedrock values will take primacy in immigration law: family unity versus abiding by the rules, compassion versus law and order.

As for Arellano – a small, shy woman with a quick smile – she says she just wants what's best for 7-year-old Saul, although she hopes her struggle will shed light on the many other illegal immigrants in similar circumstances.

"This was my last hope," Arellano says in Spanish, in between taping a segment for FOX News' "Geraldo At Large" and fielding questions by phone from a radio station in Arizona, in the small room above the Adalberto United Methodist Church where she's been staying since Aug. 15. "My son doesn't want to go. He thinks this is his country."

The law is not on Arellano's side, and seeking sanctuary in a church – a strategy employed in the 1980s by many Central American asylum-seekers – doesn't afford legal protection either. Federal agents are as entitled to go into a church as anywhere else to nab an immigration fugitive, which is what Arellano became when she opted not to show up at Immigration and Customs (ICE) offices for deportation. And, as her detractors point out, she has twice entered the US illegally. (She was turned back at the Mexican border during her first attempt nine years ago, but managed to cross into the US several days later.)

"It's quite easy from a legal perspective," says Carlina Tapia, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Chicago, noting that Arellano forfeited any right to legal challenges or benefits when she became a fugitive.

From the political and moral perspectives, Ms. Tapia says, the case is more complicated. She hopes it leads lawmakers to "work on the difficult task of compromise" on immigration reform, though she's skeptical that it will.

The Rev. Walter Coleman, the pastor who took Arellano in, estimates that nearly 6,000 supporters have come to the church in the past two weeks. But Arellano's critics have been equally vocal: The Chicago Tribune editorialized against her stand, as did several columnists who say her defiance is the wrong way to go about reform.

Her stand "is arrogant and defiant, and that's probably the worst thing about it," says Rosanna Pulido of the Illinois Minuteman Civil Defense. "If our laws are wrong, go back to Mexico."