Pastor: Illegal Immigrant Who Sought Sanctuary in Chicago Church Deported

An immigration activist who took refuge in a Chicago church for a year to avoid being separated from her son has been deported to Mexico, the church's pastor said.

Elvira Arellano was arrested Sunday afternoon outside Our Lady Queen of Angels church in Los Angeles. She was deported several hours later, said the Rev. Walter Coleman, pastor of Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago, where Arellano had taken refuge.

"She has been deported. She is free and in Tijuana," said Coleman, who said he spoke to her on the phone. "She is in good spirits. She is ready to continue the struggle against the separation of families from the other side of the border."

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Chicago confirmed the arrest Sunday. Spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said the agency would have further details on the deportation Monday.

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Arellano, 32, became a symbol of the struggles of illegal immigrant parents when she took refuge in the church to avoid being separated from her 8-year-old son, a U.S. citizen.

She had said Saturday she was not afraid of being taken into custody by immigration agents.

"From the time I took sanctuary the possibility has existed that they arrest me in the place and time they want," she said in Spanish. "I only have two choices. I either go to my country, Mexico, or stay and keep fighting. I decided to stay and fight."

Arellano came to Washington state illegally in 1997. She was deported to Mexico shortly after, but returned and moved to Illinois in 2000, taking a job cleaning planes at O'Hare International Airport.

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She was arrested in 2002 at O'Hare and convicted of working under a false Social Security number. She was to surrender to authorities last year.

She sought refuge at the storefront church on Chicago's West Side on Aug. 15, 2006. She had not left the church property until she decided to travel by car to Los Angeles, Coleman said.

Coleman said Arellano, who is staying with a friend in Tijuana, had brought to light her struggle, and for that, "she has won a victory."

"She'll be organizing on the Mexican side of the border while we're organizing in the [United] States," Coleman said Monday. "She'll be talking to organizations throughout Mexico and congressmen in Mexico City."

Coleman said he and other activists will continue Arellano's original plan to go to Washington, D.C. and take part in a prayer meeting and rally for immigration reform at the Capitol on Sept. 12.

Immigration activists responded with anger to her arrest, and promised protests and vigils to support her.

"We are sad, but at the same time we are angry," said Javier Rodriguez, a Chicago immigration activist who worked with Arellano. "How dare they arrest this woman?"

Anti-illegal immigrant groups said the arrest was long overdue.

"Just because the woman has gone public and made an issue of the fact that she is defying law doesn't mean the government doesn't have to do its job," said Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limits on immigration.

Arellano has repeatedly called for a stop to immigration raids that break up families with some members who are in the U.S. legally and others illegally.

Emma Lozano, Coleman's wife and head of immigration rights group Centro Sin Fronteras in Chicago, said she was Saul's legal guardian. At an afternoon news conference in Los Angeles, the boy hid behind Lozano and wiped away tears.

"He's taking it better than we thought he would," Lozano said.

While being arrested, Arellano spoke briefly with her son before submitting to authorities, Lozano said.

"She calmed him down, hugged him and gave him a blessing," said Lozano.

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