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Defying a deportation order against her
Elvira Arellano's stand for justice

NADIA SOL IRERI UNZUETA CARRASCO and NOREEN McNULTY report on a new struggle for the immigrant rights movement.

AT ALDALBERTO United Methodist Church, a storefront church in Chicago, people gather each day and night to support Elvira Arellano, an immigrant facing deportation who took sanctuary August 15.

Crowds swell during the day from dozens to hundreds of supporters. Members of the church, neighbors from the mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood and activists from all over the city have come to join her in solidarity.

Elvira has lived in the U.S. for nearly a decade, and her 7-year-old son Saul was born here and is a U.S. citizen. In 2002, she was rounded up in a post-September 11 Department of Homeland Security workplace raid. She has battled efforts to deport her ever since, going on a nearly month-long hunger strike this spring with another Chicago woman facing deportation.

Ordered to report for deportation this month, Elvira instead took the courageous step of taking refuge at the church. If she defies the order for 90 days, she faces felony charges and a four-year prison sentence.

Seven-year-old Saul, who was born in the U.S., told those gathered at the church for a recent service, "I want Bush to stop the deportations, so my mom can stay here with me." Elvira talked in an interview about how Saul has told her that the U.S. is his home, she is his mother, and she is welcome in his home.

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MANY HAVE likened Elvira to Rosa Parks, who broke unjust segregation laws by refusing to move to the back of the bus, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The front of the church is covered with letters of support and a history of Elvira's struggle to fight deportation. Two kids were selling "I Support Elvira Arellano" buttons, featuring a picture of Elvira standing in front of La Virgen de Guadalupe. A supporter stood waving a large Puerto Rican flag, next to a banner with dozens of signatures in support of Elvira staying in the U.S.

Inside the church, there was not a sense of siege, but also not a sense of ease. In a back room, there was a lot of donated food, not unlike a strike headquarters. News vans and English-, Spanish- and Polish-media reporters and cameras were everywhere. Children darted around the church--among them, Saul.

When Elvira came out from resting, she went around the church to meet everyone and express her thanks for their support. People told her why they were there and gave messages of solidarity. Children offered water, fruit and snacks to everyone there.

There was a strong feeling of openness and unity. As one supporter said, "I'm here to try to make a change. I, too, have been discriminated against, and we all have to help each other out."

The day after Elvira took refuge, the Chicago Fire Department and police attempted to evacuate the church, saying there was a fire on the block. Supporters chanted and linked arms, standing in solidarity with Elvira and letting her know that she would not be taken without a fight.

The next morning, a member of the Minutemen vigilantes came into the church with a video camera. He was promptly asked to leave, and the church has adopted additional security measures.

Throughout the day and evening, the church holds prayer services, which are also rallies of support and solidarity with Elvira. At one point during a recent service, the church filled with chants of "Sí se puede," "El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido" and "Familia sí, migra no."

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ELVIRA'S PERSONAL battle represents the struggles of 500,000 immigrants facing deportation and 12 million undocumented workers living in the U.S.

She came to the U.S. in 1997 and moved to Chicago, getting a job cleaning airplanes at the city's main airport. That's where she was rounded up in the raid and charged with using a false Social Security number.

Most undocumented workers face the same dilemma of obtaining a Social Security number to get work. In effect, the legal system makes people choose between meeting their basic needs and following the law. As Elvira points out, undocumented workers do pay taxes and help to fund Social Security, even though they do not get any benefits in return.

The raid took place in a post-9/11 setting, and Elvira is one of many more victims of the "war on terror" at home. Elvira says the agents "came asking me if I had weapons or a permit to bear arms."

"[They] separate families in the name of Homeland Security," Elvira said in a statement to reporters. "No one will be safer in this country if I am deported. My only weapons are my hands. With them, I have worked to take care of my child and survive in this country."

As a statement by Elvira was being read at an August 20 protest and press conference, George Garcia, part of the crowd, said he was quite moved. "I admire her very much," he said. "She has shown the courage. How many have been deported? She has done what many men haven't done--fight immigration. I hope others do the same."

The March 10 Movement, the coalition that played a leading role in organizing the mass marches of March 10 and May 1 in Chicago, issued a statement of "unconditional solidarity" with Arellano and everyone facing deportation, demanding a moratorium on raids and deportation proceedings, and calling on religious establishments to open their doors to create a place where the victims can seek refuge.

Support for Elvira is spreading beyond Chicago. Already, solidarity actions have been held in Phoenix and Los Angeles, where more than 50 people marched, highlighting Elvira's case to call for a halt to deportations and for immediate and full legalization for all 12 million undocumented workers.

In Chicago, rallies and events at the church where Elvira has taken refuge take place constantly. On August 20, 150 people attended a rally called by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.

"The system is broken," said Jesse Rios, the organization's executive director. "It's tearing families apart. She is a hard-working woman just trying to keep it together. This is not an issue of the law, but of human rights. Where's the family values in breaking up families?"

To show your support, visit the church sanctuary at 2716 W. Division in Chicago, and call Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin (202-224-2152) and Barack Obama (202-224-2854) and ask them to support the private bill for Elvira Arellano and promote a just immigration reform that includes legalization for all.

Nathan Goldbaum, Loretta Capeheart, Eric Kerl and Elizabeth Lalasz contributed to this report.

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