A Day in Sanctuary How the Woman, Who Has Become a Symbol of the Illegal Immigration Battle, Spends Her Days One Year after Seeking Refuge in a Church

Article excerpt

Byline: Tara Malone


She monitors her MySpace page, greeting every new friend.

She sells make-up and skin cream from an Avon catalog.

She designs blouses and jokes as she stitches about creating her own label. The name? Sanctuary.

She helps her son with homework, tends to her Chihuahua and tidies up the bedroom they all share.

So time passes for Elvira Arellano inside these walls.

On Aug. 15, 2006, Arellano defied a federal deportation order when she, along with her U.S.-born son, Saul, sought sanctuary in a storefront church on Chicago's Northwest side.

A year later, Arellano - arguably the country's most famous undocumented immigrant - will announce Wednesday whether this is the life she'll continue to lead.

For some, Arellano's standoff with federal authorities represents the reason immigration reform is needed.

To others, her defiance epitomizes a disregard for the rule of law and the need for stricter immigration enforcement.

Yet few disagree that Arellano today is a ubiquitous symbol of the immigration debate unfolding in churches and city halls nationwide.

The 32-year-old mother from Michoacan, Mexico, was named one of 2006' most influential people by Time Magazine.

From her bedroom above the church, Arellano helped organize protests in Chicago and Washington, D.C., urging immigration reform.

And from her second-floor perch, she watched as proponents of a crackdown on illegal immigration shouted for her to "go home." Some called her an unfit mother, a charge, she says, that was tougher to shrug off.

Federal immigration officers discount Arellano's sanctuary, a religious concept with no legal authority. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement say they will deport Arellano "at a time and place of their choosing."

"ICE's statutory mandate is to fairly enforce the nation's immigration laws without regard for an alien's ability to generate media attention," according to an agency statement.

Arellano came to the U.S. illegally a decade ago. Hired with the help of a fake Social Security card, she cleaned planes at O'Hare International Airport. In 2002, Arellano was snared in a security bust at U.S. airports and pled guilty to using fraudulent documents. With that felony on her record, she faced deportation.

A string of political reprieves ensued when Arellano emerged as an activist for immigrant rights. She met then-Mexican President Vicente Fox and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

But by 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006, Arellano's time had run out. She was ordered to report to the Office of Homeland Security. She never showed. Arellano instead entered Adalberto United Methodist Church in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park. The step inside from the busy stretch of Division Street was her last in public.

Shielded by watchful neighbors, protective friends and security cameras, she has not left church grounds since.

If Arellano stays, her days will be long and confined, as a recent visit with her by the Daily Herald shows. Here's a glimpse at the daily reality of a life in sanctuary:

8:30: Arellano wakes to an empty room. Now 8, Saul - Saulito to his friends - already left the twin bed he shares with his mother. He's in the kitchen with Arellano's friend, Jacovita Alonso, who moved into this flat with the pair nearly a year ago.

Arellano stretches in between the dresser, closet and small altar with candles and pictures of Jesus. Sit-ups come next, a concession to 361 days of not moving around much. She's dropped fajitas from her diet, too.

9 a.m.: Wearing jeans, a pressed shirt and black loafers, Saul heads off to a conference of Methodist church leaders. He goes in his mother's stead, as he's gone to Mexico City and Washington, D.C., Arellano sees off Saul and assistant pastor Beti Guevara before taking a shower. …