Chicago deportation resister seeks church sanctuary

On Aug. 15, at the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, immigrant activist Elvira Arellano told supporters she would not report to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) office that day for deportation, as she had been ordered to do by 9 AM. Instead, she announced she would take sanctuary in the church, with the support of the pastor and her fellow parishioners, in an effort to remain in the US with her seven-year-old son, a US citizen. (Chicago Tribune, Aug. 15)

Pastor Walter Coleman said his congregation offered Arellano refuge after praying about her plight. “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,” said Coleman. (AP, Aug. 16)

Arellano was arrested in a December 2002 immigration raid at O’Hare International Airport, where she worked doing cleaning. She fought her deportation to Mexico and joined with others to found United Latino Family, of which she is president. She and Flor Crisostomo–one of 26 Chicago employees of the IFCO pallet company arrested in an immigration raid last Apr. 19–carried out a hunger strike last May 10 to June 1, demanding a moratorium on deportations.

A private relief bill for Arellano was introduced to the Senate in 2003, based on her son’s health problems. While the bill is stalled, it resulted in three stays of deportation, the last of which expired Aug. 15. (CT, Aug. 16, 15) “One year ago, I was granted a stay while private bills on my behalf were pending in Congress,” Arellano said. “Nothing has changed since that stay was granted. Homeland Security has the legal power–and, I believe, obligation–to extend this stay of deportation.” (Chicago Journal, Aug. 16)

In an Aug. 15 statement, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said he would not help Arellano seek another stay, in part because her son’s condition has improved. “We cannot fix the injustices of this system with private bills,” said Durbin. “Only comprehensive immigration reform can permanently remedy this situation.” Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), speaking in Springfield on Aug. 15, expressed similar concerns: “I don’t feel comfortable carving out an exception for one person when there are hundreds of thousands of people just in the Chicago region alone who would want a similar exemption,” he said. (CT, Aug. 16, 15)

On Aug. 16, about 100 people gathered in front of the church to support Arellano. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) came by to offer his support; the previous day Gutierrez wrote to President George W. Bush, asking him to extend Arellano’s right to stay in the US. (CT, Aug. 16)

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials said Arellano is now considered a fugitive. ICE spokesperson Tim Counts said agents have the authority to go into a church or anywhere else to make an arrest. “We will take action at the time and place of our choosing,” Counts said. (CT, Aug. 15) But on Aug. 18, an immigration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said: “We have no plans to enter the church to arrest Mrs. Arellano.” (Chicago Sun-Times, Aug. 19) The official said Arellano’s case carries “no more priority than any of the other 500,000 fugitives nationally.” She will be apprehended “at an appropriate time and place,” the official said. (AP, Aug. 18)

Central American refugees took sanctuary in US churches in the 1980s, and the use of sanctuary to fight deportation has become common recently in Canada: as of August 2004, at least six people, mainly failed refugee claimants, were in sanctuary in Canadian churches. Canadian authorities violated sanctuary once, in March 2004, when they arrested Algerian Mohamed Cherfi at a Quebec City church. Cherfi was deported to the US, where he later was granted asylum by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).

As of August 2006 there are at least four prominent sanctuary cases in Canada: Latvian Alexi Kolosov has been in sanctuary in a church in St. John’s, Newfoundland, since April 2005; Algerian refugee Abdelkader Belaouni has been in sanctuary in a Montreal church since Jan. 1, 2006; Pakistani refugee Hassan Raza and his wife Sarfraz Kausar took sanctuary with their six children in a Winnipeg church on Aug. 4; and Israeli immigrant Angela Portnoy is living in a church basement in Marystown, Newfoundland, where she took sanctuary with her four children last Oct. 2. (Immigration authorities gave Portnoy a temporary reprieve to allow her to give birth to her fifth child in the hospital on Aug. 12 and recover from the birth without fear of arrest.) (CBC News, Aug. 16, Aug. 5, Aug. 4, April 25; Canadian Press, Aug. 17; No One Is Illegal, April 26; Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council website)

From Immigration News Briefs, Aug. 19

See our last posts on the immigration crackdown and the Elvira Arellano case.