CHICAGO – A Mexican woman says she is "picking up the torch" from another illegal resident who became a symbol for immigration reform when she took shelter in a Chicago church for a year before being deported.
Flor Crisostomo, 28, who paid a smuggler to drive her across the U.S. border in 2000, spurned a deportation order Monday and moved into Adalberto United Methodist Church.
Crisostomo hopes her actions send a message similar to Elvira Arellano, who became a beacon of hope for millions of illegal immigrants and a lightning rod for those who saw her brazen refusal to leave the U.S. as proof of lax enforcement.
Arellano lived in an apartment on the church's upper floor for a year before leaving in August to visit Los Angeles, where immigration authorities arrested her and, within hours, deported her to Mexico.
Adalberto's pastor said no one pressured Crisostomo to take sanctuary at the church, which is in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.
"It's unfortunate we have to do this. This church has other priorities, like helping the poor in this neighborhood," the Rev. Walter Coleman said. "But God didn't give us a choice. When God says do this, we say, 'Yes, sir!"'
Coleman complained that the push for immigration reform has stalled, saying even sympathetic politicians have put the sensitive issue on the back burner.
"So what are we supposed to do?" he said. "Who's moving this movement forward? It's not moving forward."
Crisostomo, who spoke through a translator, said she left Iguala Guerrero, Mexico, after she was unable to find a job that would allow her to buy enough food for her two boys and one girl, ages 9 to 14.
In July 2000 she paid a smuggler to take her across the border and spent three days lost in desert-like conditions before making it to Los Angeles, she said. A month later she arrived in Chicago, where she worked 10 hours a day, six days a week in an IFCO Systems site that made packing materials.
By last year, she earned about $360 a week, sending $300 to her children for food, clothes and school books, she said. To keep her own costs down, she lived with four other women in a two-bedroom Chicago apartment.
"My children's lives improve a lot as a result," she said. "It wasn't luxury. But it meant they could survive."
Immigration authorities raided more than 40 IFCO sites in the U.S. in 2006 and arrested Crisostomo, along with more than 1,100 other people. The Board of Immigration Appeals last year denied Crisostomo's appeal and told her to leave the United States by Monday.
Crisostomo said she did not know how long she would stay in the church, adding that she would keep busy by lobbying via phone, e-mails and letters on behalf of millions of illegal immigrants. The apartment, which is maintained by the church, includes a bedroom, office area and living room.
Groups opposed to illegal immigration say the case is a direct challenge to federal authorities.
"It will give American citizens a great opportunity to see if Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is good at his word on strict immigration enforcement," said Rosanna Pulido, a spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher immigration enforcement.
The move to re-create the same sanctuary situation as Arellano will backfire, Pulido said.
"This tactic is ineffective," she said. "This is creating more outrage, more bad feelings toward our government and toward people who are aiding and abetting illegals."
The judicial process had given Crisostomo more than enough time to comply with U.S. law following her arrest two years ago, the Chicago office of the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement Monday.
"If Ms. Crisostomo does not comply with the immigration judge's order by tonight, she will become an immigration fugitive," the statement said.
But Crisostomo said she believes immigration authorities would not dare storm a house of worship to grab her.
"I hope they don't come for me," she said. "I hope they fear God enough."