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Broken Sanctuary

(Photo by Ted Soqui)

(Photo by Ted Soqui)

IF YOU’RE GOING TO GET DEPORTED, guess there’s no better place for it to happen than in Los Angeles. The city is just so used to deportations — from the mass ejections of Mexicans in the 1930s to the terrorizing Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids of today — that your removal from the country is sure to be conducted with extra efficiency. And if your deportation happens to be seen as unjust or symbolic of broader ills, you’ll generate welcome media buzz in the most buzz-friendly city in America.

You can’t help wondering if this was one of Elvira Arellano’s strategic calculations when she decided last week to take her cause on the road, leaving the Chicago church where she enjoyed a year of sanctuary from immigration authorities. Arellano, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico seeking to avoid a deportation order, arrived in L.A. over the weekend to start drumming up national support for a new push of mobilizations toward comprehensive immigration reform. She didn’t get very far. By late Sunday night, Arellano was in Tijuana, deported, and her U.S.-born son, 8-year-old Saul, was left in the States with only friends from the church to care for him.

Authorities nabbed Arellano on Sunday afternoon, just as she was leaving Olvera Street’s La Placita church, an iconic chapel in the sanctuary movement of the 1980s. ICE agents in unmarked cars surrounded her vehicle and served her with a warrant. She was given a chance to take her son with her, but instead, as the Chicago Tribune reported, she asked for a few moments with Saul and told him, “Calm down. Don’t have any fear. They can’t hurt me.” By late evening, she walked into Tijuana and was released to Mexican authorities, ending a yearlong saga that turned Arellano and her son into living symbols of the increasingly perverse nature of U.S. immigration policies. For some, she is this movement’s Rosa Parks.

But for ICE, Arellano’s deportation was cause to pat themselves on the back. In a news conference Monday, local ICE head Jim Hayes — as bald, stocky and arrogant as former White House media rentboy Jeff Gannon — told reporters over and over that the small-framed and soft-spoken Arellano was a “criminal fugitive alien.” Never mind, of course, the hundreds of thousands of “criminal fugitive aliens” who likely pick his fruit and manicure the lawns where he walks.

“During our surveillance of La Placita church, we did see people that we believed to be violent criminal street-gang members,” Hayes said, seemingly out of nowhere, a sign of the warped racial and cultural biases innate to the work of his agency.

Meanwhile, in Tijuana, close supporters of Arellano drove Saul south to see his mother. “They were in a hurry to deport me because they saw that I was threatening to mobilize and organize the people to fight for legalization,” Arellano said in Tijuana, according to news reports. “I have a fighting spirit and I’m going to continue fighting.”

But why leave her church sanctuary? Why did she put herself at risk of being deported? Why rob her son of his only parent? In coming to L.A., was she just asking for it?

“Why did Elvira come out here? Because she has a lot of courage, because she’s a hero,” said Javier Rodriguez, an organizer with the March 25 Coalition. “She is presently our national symbol, and everyone in this country knows about her, has heard about her.”

That may be so, but at what cost?

Felipe Aguirre, mayor pro tem of Maywood, a city that declared itself a sanctuary for immigrants in January 2006, called Arellano’s deportation a “tragicomedy.”

“The lady’s cause is great, but I think it was a stupid idea to expose her,” he said. “The people who were counseling her gave her some bad advice. You can’t stop an order of deportation once it’s in motion. It wouldn’t have happened to her here in Maywood.”

Still, Rodriguez and others seem eager to make her their martyr, calling for a new wave of marches in her name. But on Monday, the downtown L.A. rally felt small and sloppy, with competing bands of demonstrators chanting over one another, hinting at the deep and complex divisions that exist among organizers.

We’ll see how much Arellano’s story can galvanize supporters for another mass march, planned for September 12. It doesn’t look easy. The presidential election is paralyzing Congress’s reform agenda. Workers up and down the class ladder are fretting over fragile markets and ecosystems. And Elvira Arellano is now exiled in Mexico. Time for church?