Elvira Arellano, a Mexican woman whose yearlong stay inside a Chicago church made her a lightning rod in the nation's immigration debate, on Sunday returned to the sanctuary, saying she plans to live there until a hearing later this year when she will ask again to be allowed to stay.
“For me, this is my house,” Arellano said in Spanish after the service at Adalberto United Methodist Church. “I consider it my home.”
Her journey back to the city after being deported to Mexico in 2007 began last week, when she crossed into the U.S. with her sons, 5-month-old Emiliano and 15-year-old Saul, along with dozens of mostly young deportees near San Diego to protest U.S. immigration laws and deportation practices.
A two-day detention led to the scheduling of an immigration hearing for September, when she can again plead her case to stay in the U.S., said her attorney, Chris Bergin. In the meantime,
Arellano was allowed to travel and arrived in Chicago on Sunday.
“Not even I imagined that I'd be able to return,” she said in Spanish on Sunday after getting off a plane at Midway Airport. “… But thank God I'm here.”
Arellano said she wants to continue to speak out about immigration reform and hopes to remain in the country with her children. Her son Saul, who is a U.S. citizen, continued to live in the U.S. after Arellano was deported but soon returned to Mexico to reunite with her. He now travels between the two countries, spending summers in the U.S., Bergin said. Emiliano is not an American citizen.
Arellano wants her two sons to grow up in the U.S., not only for a better education but also because it's safer, Bergin added.
“The fight doesn't stop when a mother is separated from her son,” Arellano said. “The fight stops when we don't want to be part of it. As long as the immigration politics of President (Barack) Obama don't change, we'll continue to see this type of activism in favor of families so they can return home.”
At the airport and at two church services Sunday, Arellano was greeted by many supporters. Some displayed signs welcoming her and her sons, while others gave gifts and balloons.
At Adalberto, signs in Spanish and English welcomed her return after a seven-year absence, praising her and expressing blessings for her and her children.
“She is a symbol for people who, due to fear, did not venture to do what she did,” Maria Villa said before the service. “I am happy that she has returned. I feel that in the push for immigration reform, she is a light.”
Arellano received a similarly enthusiastic welcome earlier Sunday at Lincoln United Methodist Church, a sister congregation to Adalberto.
People sang songs and chanted phrases of hope for immigration reform. Toward the end of the service, several young people clad in orange T-shirts with the logo for an Illinois immigration rights group formed a circle with Arellano and her sons, held hands and prayed.
One of the church's pastors, Emma Lozano, praised Arellano's activism.
“She's no different from Rosa Parks to confront a broken law,” she said.
The legal saga that put Arellano in the national spotlight included a 2002 arrest during a federal sweep at O'Hare International Airport, where she cleaned planes. Convicted of using a fake Social Security number, she was scheduled to report to the government in the summer of 2006. Instead, she took refuge inside the church.
Federal authorities arrested her in Los Angeles in August 2007 after she quietly slipped out of the Chicago church. She had gone out West initially to attend a rally to galvanize support for federal immigration reform but opted instead to seek refuge inside a downtown LA church.
Supporters, such as Lozano, have compared her defiance to that of civil rights leader Rosa Parks. Critics, among them African-Americans who resent that comparison, say she embodies arrogance from immigrants who are in the country illegally and years of government inaction that has allowed that population to swell.
After her return to Mexico, Arellano became the target of death threats because of her work as an advocate for other Mexicans hoping to come to the U.S. and because of her son Saul's U.S. citizenship, said Bergin, her attorney.
Saul, who was 8 when his mother was deported, said Sunday that he remembers the difficulty he and his mother faced during their stay at Adalberto.
“It was difficult because I was a little kid,” he said. “I wanted her to go to a party with me, but she wouldn't because she was in sanctuary. Now seven years later, my mom is back.”
Reuters contributed.Copyright © 2015, RedEye