CHICAGO – A prominent activist for illegal immigrants sought sanctuary in a church Wednesday rather than turn herself in for deportation, saying she fears being separated from her young son.
"I am single mom. My son, he is citizen," Elvira Arellano, a Mexican national, said from just inside the doorway of Adalberto United Methodist Church. "I am not terrorist. I am not criminal. I am mom. He is my son."
Arellano, speaking through a translator Tuesday, said her 7-year-old son, Saul, worries that they will be separated.
"I want to stay here for my son. I want to give him a better future, a better life," she said.
Arellano, who was deported shortly after illegally crossing into the United States in 1997, is president of United Latino Family, which lobbies for families that could be split by deportation.
She says she returned within days, lived in Oregon for three years and moved to Chicago in 2000. She was arrested in 2002 at O'Hare International Airport, where she was employed as a cleaning woman, and subsequently convicted of working under a false Social Security number.
Arellano was ordered to appear at the immigration office in Chicago at 9 a.m. Tuesday, but instead went to the church.
Pastor Walter Coleman said his congregation offered Arellano refuge after praying about her plight. Coleman said he doesn't believe Arellano should have to choose between leaving her son behind or removing him from his home.
"She represents the voice of the undocumented, and we think it's our obligation, our responsibility, to make a stage for that voice to be heard," he said.
Federal officials declared Arellano a fugitive and said living inside a church does not offer her protection from arrest and deportation.
"There's nothing that prevents us from arresting anyone who has an outstanding deportation order anywhere in the United States," said Tim Counts, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"We will apprehend her at a time and place of our choosing," Counts said.
Arellano has received support from several Democratic politicians over the years. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he introduced a private bill that provided Arellano one stay in her deportation proceedings, but that there is nothing more he can do.
"It is an unfortunate truth that scores of people are in the same situation as Elvira and her family," Durbin said in a statement. "We cannot fix injustices of this system with private bills; only comprehensive immigration reform can permanently remedy this situation."