CHICAGO — 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.
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."
During a candlelight vigil at the church last week, families packed the sweltering church and representatives from Arab, African, Korean, and Polish communities talked about the larger issues they say her case represents. "This is a critical, defining moment for our country, and it should be a moment of mercy," said Rami Nashashibi of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, joining others in a call for a moratorium on raids and deportations "unless and until we get comprehensive immigration reform."
Roberto Lopez of Centro Sin Fronteras, the local group supporting her, says they never planned her case to draw so much national attention. Arellano has been an activist for immigrant families for several years, and when she got the deportation notice it was a shock, he says. Originally discovered by agents several years ago while working as a janitor at Chicago's O'Hare Airport under a false Social Security number, Arellano had been granted a stay of departure because of requests from legislators and medical needs of her son.
"We believed immigration [officials] would extend the stay," says Mr. Lopez. When they didn't, "our last option was prayer and to have faith."
More than any other immigration question, the prospect of separating mother and son is drawing the most attention from Arellano's backers. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 3.1 million children are in a situation similar to Saul's – US citizens with an undocumented parent.
"Families struggle when kids are born here, are as American as apple pie, and their parents, who have been here for years, are here illegally," says Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum. The Senate's version of immigration reform – which cleared in May – would ease the situation for some families by cutting the waiting time for those with family-based visa requests, she says. That wouldn't help in Arellano's situation, because children can't file such requests.
Critics, meanwhile, say Arellano's argument that deportation would infringe on Saul's rights as a US citizen is ludicrous. "Are we going to exempt anybody who has kids from compliance with laws?" says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
For now, Arellano's standoff is likely to continue, at least until media attention fades. An ICE official said the agency would not go into the church to get Arellano because of the image it would present.
From the ICE perspective, her status as a fugitive is hardly unusual. Nearly 600,000 immigration fugitives are in the US, most of whom simply disappear when their deportation orders come. The agency's priority is tracking down those with criminal records.
Arellano's many advocates, meanwhile, say they hope for the best for her, but also for more widespread reform. "That's why we're supporting her – so that we can have a big change for everyone," says Rosa Villa, a Mexican immigrant who brought her children to the church vigil. "It's an unjust system that takes parents from children and children from parents."