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For mother and son, an immigration predicament

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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."

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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."