LIKE A PERSECUTED PILGRIM out of the Middle Ages, undocumented immigrant Elvira Arellano is taking the immigrant-rights movement to divine and desperate new heights. Since August 15, she has been holed up inside the Adalberto United Methodist Church in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago’s West Side, invoking the principle of sanctuary in her standoff with federal officials who seek her deportation. Arellano, 31, would be separated from her 7-year-old son, Saul, born an American citizen. She entered the immigration system after being caught in a 2002 raid at O’Hare International Airport, where she worked.
“I don’t only speak for me and my son, but for millions of families like mine,” Arellano told a Chicago CBS affiliate in stilted English on Sunday. Outside, supporters in the predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood chanted, “Luchando mano y mano, Boriqua y Mexicano!” (“Fighting hand in hand, Puerto Rican and Mexican!”) The government has warned Arellano that she has no legal protection inside Adalberto United Methodist, but officials have also admitted they have no intent to storm a house of God and haul out a single mother who refuses to leave behind her American child. On Tuesday, a lawsuit was filed in federal court on Saul’s behalf.
Arellano’s case gave a boost to the summertime malaise of the immigrant-rights movement and has sparked a minor media storm with all the echoes of a latter-day Rosa Parks scenario. (Arellano was already a vocal immigrant-rights advocate in Chicago.) In Los Angeles, Gloria Saucedo of Hermandad Mexicana, an immigrant-advocate group in Panorama City, announced plans for a women-led march in Arellano’s honor for September 2. On Friday, La Placita, the historic church near Olvera Street, declared itself a sanctuary for any undocumented immigrant facing deportation, reclaiming the role it held for the first refugees from war-ridden Guatemala and El Salvador who poured into Los Angeles in the early 1980s. “Very brave, that woman, eh?” said Saucedo. “She is not the only one who has that problem. Every day families arrive here who have to leave because they are being deported, entire families, with their children.”
Across the country, activists are pointing to Arellano’s case and calling for a moratorium on deportations and immigration raids until Congress settles on its so-called “comprehensive immigration reform.” With elections looming in November, this is an ever-dimming prospect.
Yet the movement, sensing a lull in the public’s attention and seeking to make a pro-immigrant push in the November elections, is regrouping. The various coalitions made up of labor, religious and advocacy groups, and media figures like Renán Almendárez Coello, “El Cucuy,” are launching large voter-registration drives to get hundreds of thousands of new voters to the polls. Branches of the movement that were once openly criticizing one another are now talking about unity and cooperation. Another march is planned in Los Angeles on September 4, and at the closing of the National Latino Congreso, an agenda-minded gathering of Latino leaders from across the country, on September 9. That march is billed as the West Coast version of another massive rally planned in Washington, D.C., on September 7, just in time for Congress’s return from summer recess.
And in Chicago, Elvira Arellano waits. On a Republican-led Congress placating anti-Latino xenophobes with blatantly cynical immigration hearings in border states and districts with endangered GOP candidates. On a mainstream media that will in one instant give airtime to fringe racists railing on immigrants, and in another publish reports on how immigrants are a net benefit to the economy and a critical labor source for many major industries. And on the Democratic Party, wimpy and impotent as ever.
Even after the stirring marches this spring that brought millions onto the streets of dozens of U.S. cities, the Democratic leadership has yet to fully embrace the immigrant-rights movement and advocate for such “American values” as family unity and enterprising work ethics — not to mention solidifying a growing Latino voting bloc before Republicans beat them to the game, as they already have with many assimilated Mexican-Americans. There have been only feeble efforts to counter the Republican congressional hearings on immigration held in places like Philadelphia, San Diego and El Paso.
WHERE ARE THE DEMOCRATS?
“That’s our question too,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, after an unofficial immigration hearing put on by the We Are America Coalition at UCLA. “We feel it’s critical [for lawmakers] to hear these stories, in order for it to be on the record.”
Only one congressional representative attended the We Are America hearing held August 14: Grace Napolitano, Democrat of Santa Fe Springs. She heard testimony from labor and civil-rights leaders, religious and academic figures, and immigrants. The entire Southern California congressional delegation had been invited, Salas said.
There have been victories, of course. The spring marches dramatically shifted public perceptions of immigrants. In a Field Poll in April — even before the staggering events of May 1 — fully 75 percent of California voters favored legalizing undocumented workers who learn English and pay taxes.
The Democrats, though, still seem to make their decisions based on expected reactions from the far right, said Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles.
“So who loses here in all this political positioning [are] the immigrants,” Sanbrano said. “I think that’s why the action of Elvira Arellano is so courageous, so important, because it really underscores the unfairness of all these laws and the need for immigration reform that unites families.”
Sanbrano said she’s not counting on much progress on the matter, at least not this year. Not even formidable Democratic Latino leaders like New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson or Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa dare mention the policy goal at the core of the immigrant-rights movement: full legalization for all undocumented workers.
It’s a sign that while Latinos have made progress in the past 30 years, real advancement is still lacking, said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute and a main organizer behind the upcoming Latino Congreso.
“Since when did amnesty become a dirty word?” Gonzalez said. “That’s a colossal failure, and it’s our failure. It’s like Voldemort on Harry Potter, the You-Know-Who, the You-Know-What, that’s what we want.”
There is little time for dawdling. On August 8, nine more migrants died in a wrecked SUV near Yuma when their coyote smuggler attempted to evade the Border Patrol, a reminder that the immigration debate is still a very real question of life and death for many. And who knows how long Elvira Arellano can sustain her holy standoff with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Or how many more Elvira Arellanos might be waiting in the wings.