Elvira Arellano continues to organize and lobby for immigration reform. [Photo by María Inés Zamudio]

She crossed the border illegally, like thousands of Mexicans do every year, to find work. A decade later, she returned to her home country as the face of immigration reform.

Elvira Arellano received a deportation order in 2002 following a sweep at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, where she cleaned airplanes in 2002. 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. And in 2006, Time Magazine named her Person of the Year.

“I knew there was nothing I could legally do for my case, but politically we had a lot to gain,” Arellano told The Chicago Reporter during a recent interview in Mexico City, where she was taking part in a training for activists.

“I did as much as I could. I wanted other families to stand up and fight with us.”

Arellano was a polarizing figure. Pro-immigration activists used her case to illustrate the country’s broken system while anti-immigration activists wanted immigration officials to deport her and, in some cases, labeled her son an “anchor baby” while calling for the abolition of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

She was eventually deported in 2007. She moved back to her hometown of San Miguel Curahuango Maravatio in the state of Michoacán. She hasn’t given up her activism work. Since returning to Mexico, she has continued to organize in support of immigration reform and to protect the rights of Central American immigrants traveling through Mexico.

Arellano morphed from a fearful undocumented immigrant to an international activist.

“I think I changed 99 percent,” said Arellano, referring to when she migrated north looking for her “American Dream” to now.

The Reporter interviewed Arellano in 2003 as part of an investigative story about Operation Chicagoland Skies, one of several federal sting operations following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That was Arellano’s first interview and she was described as a scared and shy immigrant.

“She was deeply offended that she would be equated with terrorists. She was a single mother working nights to support her son. She became the face of the movement,” said Joshua Hoyt, executive director for the National Partnership for New Americans.  “She’s going to be remembered as a courageous woman.”

Hoyt said Arellano was important to the immigration movement because at the time, there weren’t many undocumented immigrants advocating for themselves.

“She was really important in the process in which undocumented immigrants really discovered their voice,” he said. “It was heroic that she was fighting for herself and people like her.”

Hoyt was one of the first activists to meet Arellano after she was arrested. He describes her as a shy, working-class immigrant who was nervous about being in the spotlight. But she was also a natural leader, he said.

Arellano brought national attention to Chicago, which had been known as a sanctuary city since the mid-1980s. This means police are not supposed to detain undocumented immigrants because of their status.

More than a decade later, Arellano has developed a strong voice. She speaks calmly and eloquently about her work.

“We are continuing to work from here to support immigration reform and the reunification of families,” she said. “We are also working to make sure the rights of migrants from Central America traveling through our country are respected.”
She has almost entirely substituted “I” for “we” when she talks. She is an active member of the non-governmental organization “Migrant Movement of MesoAmerica.” The 40-year-old mother calls most of her friends “comrades.” Since she was deported, she has traveled to Spain, Italy and Cuba to promote and advocate for migrants. She even ran for a seat in México’s Congress in 2009.

Last summer, Arellano helped to gather more than 200 letters from U.S.-born children living in Mexico after their parents were deported.  Six American children, including her son Saul who is now 15, delivered the letters to legislators in Washington, D.C. These children wanted to ask legislators to include their parents in the proposed immigration bill that was being discussed in the Senate.

Dave Gorak, executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, said Arellano broke the law by crossing the border illegally and her goal to reunite families is erroneous.

“There is nothing preventing these families from being together,” Gorak said. “The children can go back with the deportee.”
If Arellano ignored the laws, he said, why she should get to stay.

“She was here illegally. This is a criminal act and she is telling us, ‘to hell with our laws.’ She doesn’t belong here,” he said. “If you violate our laws, don’t come to us crying about your family being separated.”

After years of living in Mexico, Arellano has broadened the immigrant rights she’s fighting for. She is advocating for the rights of Central Americans who are living in Mexico temporarily while they travel north.

Thousands of immigrants from Central America travel through Mexico as they make their way north. This is a dangerous journey. These migrants travel from southern to northern Mexico on top of a freight train, known as “La Bestia,” or “The Beast.”

Arellano has gathered clothes and other donations and transported them to shelters in southern Mexico. She has helped mothers from El Salvador and Honduras look for their missing family members. More than two years ago, she stayed at a shelter in Oaxaca run by the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde to help protect him when a powerful cartel threatened to kill him.

“We wanted to support father Solalinde We went and stayed there,” she said. “I had some contacts in the press, and we said, ‘let’s call them. Let’s bring attention to what’s happening here.’ And that’s when we had our first action, paso a paso hacia la paz [step by step toward peace], where we walked with the migrants.”

It was during that time that she met her boyfriend, an immigrant from Honduras. She now lives with him and their 2-month old baby and her son Saul in Michoacán.

Despite all of her work advocating for immigrant rights, Arellano has struggled financially.

Finding work hasn’t been easy. She is supporting herself with the help of organizations, by writing a column for a New York newspaper and selling popcorn. She hopes to open a cyber café in her hometown. She’s been asking family members to lend her money to open it.

“It has been difficult,” she said, adding that she wants to go back to school. She completed one year at a university before she had her baby.

Moving to Mexico hasn’t been easy for her teenage son Saul, she said.

“[The transition] was really difficult for him,” she said of Saul, who was 8 years old when she was deported. “He wasn’t able to adapt—even now.”

Saul spends every summer in Chicago.

“I don’t want him to lose his language and I want him to have better opportunities,” she said, adding that she has considered letting him move to Chicago to say with his godparents, but she’s scared.

“He’s a good boy and I don’t want him to be alone,” she said. “I don’t want gangs to recruit him.”

She doesn’t lose hope that the immigration laws in the United States will change and she will be able to return to Chicago.

As for now, she said she continues to fight for immigrant rights—even when she’s frustrated.

“There are times I’m tired and I say, ‘I’m going to take a break. I’m not gaining anything except criticism’,” she said. “I say that when I’m angry or disillusioned.”

But when she sees on Facebook that more families in the U.S. continue to be separated, she wants to keep going.

“The anger [of hearing about deportations] makes me want to come back to my work,” she said. “It makes me want to continue fighting.”

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...