Chicago Tribune - Taking refuge in a church, a prominent advocate for illegal immigrants publicly defied federal authorities in Chicago who were trying to deport her Tuesday.
Elvira Arellano, who became a national spokeswoman for families facing deportation, had been ordered to report to the Department of Homeland Security by 9 a.m.
Instead, Arellano appeared at the pulpit of Adalberto United Methodist Church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, vowing before dozens of supporters that she would not return to Mexico "like a coward." She said she would stay in the church indefinitely with her 7-year-old son, a U.S. citizen.
Arellano's move, which apparently took many of her supporters by surprise, recalled the 1980s sanctuary movement, in which many liberal congregations around the U.S. took in illegal immigrants who were fleeing war in Central America.
Her supporters invoked the notion that lawbreakers can be protected in a house of worship, a tradition that dates to the ancient Greeks.
"If Homeland Security chooses to send agents to a holy place, I would know that God wants me to serve as an example of the hatred and hypocrisy of the current administration," Arellano said.
But defying the order also puts Arellano, 31, at risk of even stiffer punishment, including detention.
Because Arellano ignored her deportation order, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said she is now considered a fugitive. Spokesman Tim Counts said agents have the authority to go into a church or anywhere else to make an arrest.
"We will take action at the time and place of our choosing," Counts said.
Legal experts agree that a church offers no formal protection, but they say it could put the government in an awkward position.
"Just because you are in a church doesn't mean you are less deportable in a legal sense," said Joel Fetzer, associate professor of political science at Pepperdine University. "But in a political sense, it looks very bad to be hauling people out of churches as the camera rolls."
Arellano, a cleaning woman at O'Hare International Airport, was arrested in 2002 during an immigration sweep aimed at securing the nation's aviation system after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Authorities discovered she had been using a fake Social Security number to work and had previously been deported and re-entered the country illegally.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and other members of the state's congressional delegation urged homeland security officials to let Arellano remain in Chicago to care for her son, Saul, born in the U.S., who has ADHD and other health problems. She was granted three stays of deportation starting in 2003.
No longer in hiding, she began to speak openly about her own experiences and became a symbol for the state's 400,000 illegal immigrants.
She took her case to Mexico President Vicente Fox and to the Statehouse in Springfield. She helped found and became president of United Latino Family, a Pilsen-based group that lobbies for families that could be split by deportation.
But some of those sympathetic to her cause, including Durbin, suggested that another stay of deportation would be harder to justify because her son's condition has improved. Immigration officials say that without a U.S. senator's request, they cannot grant such a stay.