Elvira Arellano
Elvira Arellano joins in a protest against deportations at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico on Friday, March 14. She crossed the border four days later. [Photo courtesy National Immigrant Youth Alliance]

Chicago immigration activist Elvira Arellano, named Time Magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally Tuesday with her U.S.-born son Saul and Emiliano, her 4-month-old baby.

“This is a way to protest President Obama,” Arellano told The Chicago Reporter in a phone interview before she crossed. “The only thing he’s given immigrant families is two million deportations.”

According to another activist at the border, Arellano was detained by authorities. Because she has a deportation order in her record, she may face criminal charges for illegal re-entry. The status of her son and baby are not known, and a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman would not confirm information about Arellano or her children, citing privacy laws.

Arellano initially traveled to Tijuana to support undocumented immigrants planning to cross the border at San Diego as part of the national Bring Them Home campaign. Nearly 150 undocumented immigrants, including three former Chicagoans, crossed during the last week as part of the protest.

“When I arrived I didn’t have plans to cross the border, I just wanted to support the families,” said Arellano, who lives 1,500 miles away in the state of Michoacán, a two-hour drive northwest of Mexico City, since she was deported in 2007. “But I decided to cross. It is important for me to be here and be part of this movement. It is not the same to support it from behind a computer.”

Last year, prosecutions for illegal re-entry reached an all-time high of 97,384 — an increase of more than 22 percent from five years ago, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Daniel M. Kowalski, an immigration lawyer based in Austin, Texas and editor of the legal newsletter Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, said it is unlikely Arellano will face re-entry charges because she’s not sneaking into the country. Instead, he said, the border patrol could reinstate Arellano’s previous deportation and quickly send her back to Tijuana.

Minutes before she crossed the border, Arellano said she understood the risk she was taking. Not only could she go to jail but her baby and son might be taken away. However, bringing attention to the high number of deportations is worth the risk, she said.

Arellano received a deportation order in 2002 following a sweep at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, where she cleaned airplanes. But instead of leaving, she sought refuge inside a Chicago church in 2006, sparking a nationwide sanctuary movement. Arellano and her U.S.-born son, Saul, became iconic symbols for immigration reform. She continues to advocate for immigration reform from Mexico.

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...