“I Fear God Much More Than I Fear Homeland Security”–Chicago Pastor on Why He is Allowing Mexican Mother to Stay in Church to Avoid Deportation

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A Mexican woman has taken refuge inside a Chicago church in an attempt to defy a government deportation order. Elvira Arellano has been living in the Adalberto United Methodist Church since last Tuesday — the day she was supposed to surrender to authorities. We go to Chicago to speak with Arellano from inside the church as well as the Rev. Walter Coleman, the pastor of the church. [includes rush transcript]

We go now to Chicago, where a battle for immigrant rights is gaining national attention. A Mexican woman has taken refuge inside a Chicago church in an attempt to defy a government deportation order. Elvira Arellano has been living in the Adalberto United Methodist Church since last Tuesday — the day she was supposed to surrender to authorities. Arellano is president of United Latino Family, a group that lobbies for families that could be split by deportation. She was born in Mexico and came to the country as an undocumented immigrant. Her seven-year-old son, Saul, was born in the United States and is a U.S. citizen.

A rally was held Sunday in Chicago to support Elvira. One of those rallying to her cause is immigrant rights activist Emma Lozano of Pueblo Sin Fronteras.

US Immigration and Customs enforcement officials have said Arellano is now considered a fugitive. ICE spokersperson Tim Counts said “We will take action at the time and place of our choosing.”

  • Elvira Arellano, she joins us on the line now from the Chicago church where she’s taken refuge.
  • Rev. Walter Coleman, pastor at the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A rally was held Sunday in Chicago to support Elvira. One of those rallying to her cause is immigrants rights activist Emma Lozano of Pueblo Sin Fronteras.

EMMA LOZANO: The deportation of Elvira Arellano is — to me, it’s just retaliation for all her leadership. She has been at the head of the movement. She’s been like the Rosa Parks of the undocumented, of the movement for legalization. She’s calling for the moratorium. She did the hunger strike for 22 days. She’s like our Rosita Parks, and we should all be rallying around her to make sure they don’t deport her, because it may demoralize the movement.

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have said Arellano is now considered a fugitive. ICE spokesperson Tim Counts said, “We will take action at the time and place of our choosing.” Elvira Arellano joins us now on the phone from the church where she has taken refuge with her son. Joining us in a studio in Chicago is Rev. Walter Coleman. He’s the pastor at the Adalberto United Methodist Church. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Elvira, can you talk about why you are in the church right now? And is your son with you?

ELVIRA ARELLANO: Hi. Good morning. I am still here. I’m deported in August 15. And I stay here with my son.

AMY GOODMAN: And why have you chosen to stay in the church?

ELVIRA ARELLANO: I don’t know. I stay here maybe one or two weeks more — I do not know — depending the immigration, maybe — stay here.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are you there?

ELVIRA ARELLANO: Because the immigration deport me to Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: And why are they saying they will deport you? Elvira?

TRANSLATOR: Hello? Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Hi. This is Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!

TRANSLATOR: Yeah. I’m going to translate for her.

AMY GOODMAN: Very good. Thank you.

TRANSLATOR: You’re welcome, ma’am. I put you on the speakerphone.

AMY GOODMAN: Very good. I’m asking Elvira why the government is saying they want to deport her and why she wants to stay in this country with her son.

ELVIRA ARELLANO: [translated] Because he is a U.S. citizen, and she wants for them to respect his constitutional rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid that they will enter the church?

ELVIRA ARELLANO: [translated] Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: How have you prepared for this?

ELVIRA ARELLANO: [translated] I just know that I have to be with my son.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined in a Chicago studio by Rev. Walter Coleman, the pastor at the church where Elvira has taken refuge, the Adalberto United Methodist Church. Can you talk about your decision to make your church a sanctuary church, Rev. Coleman?

REV. WALTER COLEMAN: Certainly. And good morning. First of all, Elvira Arellano is a member of our church and has been a member of our church for three years. And as we approached the final hours and it seems that other options were being exhausted, she had decisions. As she could have any time over the last three years, when she was first arrested, when she was working at the airport, for being undocumented, she could have gone and just disappeared like 12 million other people. She could have accepted the deportation.

But she has always said that she would fight what she considers to be an unjust law, so that her son will know that he’s a child of God and not a piece of junk that can be thrown away. So the option of sanctuary when she requested it seemed like a good option to give her a holy space to continue a campaign of civil disobedience against an unfair law that is separating families throughout this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Just going through the list of politicians who are supporting Elvira, you have Senator Barack Obama, Congressmember Luis Gutierrez, even Mayor Richard Daley. Can you talk about the congressional action on this issue, Rev. Walter Coleman?

REV. WALTER COLEMAN: Right. Because of her leadership really, two private bills have been put in Congress on her behalf, one by Congressman Gutierrez and another by Congressman Bobby Rush. Congressman Rush’s bill includes a group of other families that Elvira actually organized, who are all in the same situation. That is, one or other of the parents is undocumented and facing deportation for doing nothing wrong, except entering this country and working and paying taxes, but their children are U.S. citizens.

And Elvira has worked very hard to dramatize this issue. She has led delegations to Washington, large delegations of 100, 150, seven times in the last year, talked to over 120 congressmen and over 40 senators. She has won the support of the Chicago City Council and the mayor, the Cook County board and Cook County president. The state legislature, the state senate have all passed formal resolutions. And the governor of Illinois is supporting it, as well as a wealth of other church and community leaders.

And I think, obviously, she has her own particular situation with her son, who she loves and who has a right and a need to stay here with his doctors and in his school. But also she said that she is fighting a fight of principle. And because of that, I think that she has won support throughout the state and really throughout the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Elvira Arellano, can you tell us what Saul is suffering from, your son, why he needs medical attention? We’re talking to Elvira in the church where she has taken refuge.

ELVIRA ARELLANO: [translated] Because my son has HDAD, and because the federal agents, when they entered the house, they came with weapons when they raided the house, and this panicked my son.

AMY GOODMAN: How is he getting help in the church right now? Is he getting help?

ELVIRA ARELLANO: [translated] He hasn’t gone to the doctor yet. In case of an emergency, his babysitter will bring him to the doctor.

AMY GOODMAN: There are conflicting reports of what ICE will do, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Chicago Tribune has an AP piece that says, “They would apprehend Arellano at a time and place 'of their choosing' and that nothing prevented them from going into the church. But on Friday, a government official close to the case said immigration agents have decided against entering the church to remove Arellano. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is against ICE policy to discuss operational matters, said the Arellano case carries 'no more priority than any of the other 500,000 fugitives nationally.'”

Rev. Walter Coleman, what about that, how Elvira’s case fits into the national picture? Chicago is a major center of immigrants rights activism, had perhaps the largest immigrants right — the first large immigrants rights protest in the wave of protests we saw in the last months.

REV. WALTER COLEMAN: Well, I think we have to understand the situation generally. It’s very hard for me to read the mind of people in immigration. But generally, we have this situation. The President of United States and the Senate have both said that they would like a program that legalizes at least a large part of those who are in this country. The President has spoken out against the separation of families and mothers and children, like Elvira’s family. At the same time, under pressure from House Republican leadership, the U.S. government is doubling and tripling its efforts to deport, arrest, to raid factories and to impose sanctions on employers.

We think that this is a contradiction, and part of why we think they are retaliating against Elvira is that she has been so successful in her call for a moratorium on deportations until they fix the law. It’s a contradiction to be deporting and arresting and traumatizing children and torturing children of those who may in a few months or a year be able to legalize. We have a broken law. Everybody recognizes that. So we’re in a very contradictory situation.

And when it comes down to the situation locally, there are a lot of people that they could go after. There are millions. There are many that they have already written orders for deportation, who haven’t shown up, who are going on living their lives. They have a lot of choices. They’re running around like a bull in a china shop. And when a lot of light is shone, as it has on Elvira’s case, I think there’s — we pray that they will respect the church and the family and the faith. But, obviously, they are looking at public opinion and fighting really a political battle, which unfortunately families and children are the victims of. So we really don’t know if they’ll choose — the political winds will grow and they’ll choose to disrespect the church and come to get her or if they’ll do, as their latest spokesperson has said, that they’ll respect the sanctuary of the church.

AMY GOODMAN: Rev. Walter Coleman, are you concerned you will face consequences, sanctions for your church being used as a sanctuary? And do you see yourself in the tradition of the sanctuary movement of 20 years ago, where churches in this country and especially along the border from Mexico gave refuge to refugees from political persecution from Guatemala, from Honduras, from El Salvador?

REV. WALTER COLEMAN: Right. You know, the sanctuary movement and sanctuary tradition in the church goes a long way, further back than 20 years ago. And certainly we call upon that tradition, that is, that there’s holy ground and that there’s space that should be respected by governments for those who appeal to the law of God in their acts of conscience and in their seeking of safety from oppression.

And, you know, we don’t really know what they’ll look at. They’ve said that we are liable; then I’m liable for harboring a fugitive. Elvira Arellano is obviously not a fugitive. She formerly told them where she is. She told the world, and everybody in the world knows where she is, her address and phone number and place. She is committing an act of civil disobedience to protect the rights of her child and to bring forth the issue of the cruel separation of families. If they choose to take whatever action they’re going to take, I have no control over that. But I fear God much more than I fear Homeland Security.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, let’s turn back to Elvira Arellano in the church with her son at the Adalberto United Methodist Church, a storefront church in Chicago. Do you plan to stay at the church indefinitely? How long do you plan to stay?

ELVIRA ARELLANO: [translated] The only thing that I want is to stay with my son. I would like for this to come out good, because I want to take my son to school. I want him to have — I have worked for him all my life, and I still want to keep working for him all my life. That’s what I want.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us, Reverend Walter Coleman, pastor at the Adalberto United Methodist Church, and Elvira Arellano, undocumented immigrant taking refuge in the Adalberto church. And we will continue to follow this story. She is head of United Latino Family. Her son suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and she continues to seek medical help for him. He is a U.S. citizen.

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