Heeding the call of Elvira Arellano

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News Analysis

LOS ANGELES — Elvira Arellano stepped completely out of the shadows last week, seeking to galvanize the immigrant rights movement into emergency action. At stake is the fate of the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrant workers and their families.

“We cannot just sit by and watch our families be torn to pieces for the next three years. I cannot,” said Arellano, Aug. 18, when she appeared here at La Placita Church. She called for the start of a campaign for emergency legalization legislation.

Arellano left her sanctuary church in Chicago to come to California to help build grassroots efforts here urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Immigration Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren, both Cali-fornians, to initiate emergency legislation.

Arellano’s bold step came in response to pronouncements by politicians and pundits that comprehensive immigration legislation would not be debated again for at least another three years, and to the Bush administration’s launching of stepped up raids and deportations, and mass firings through the Social Security “no-match” system.

The day after Arellano’s press conference here, a special squad of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials swooped down on her as she left La Placita on Aug. 19. Her arrest and deportation was an obvious effort to squelch and divert the campaign. Arellano is now in Tijuana, Mexico, with her 8-year-old U.S. citizen son Saul, who will return to Chicago for the start of school.

Immediately after the arrest, immigrant rights, labor, religious and civil rights groups organized vigils and other actions in response.

In May, the Senate came to a bitter standoff on immigration legislation. On Aug. 10, the Bush administration announced it would pursue an enforcement-first crackdown on the undocumented for the rest of its term. The House of Representatives has not debated the issue this year, so Arellano and supporters are focusing pressure there.

“Congress must act in September to stop the separation of families, the raids and deportations, the no-match sanctions. They must act to stop the hatred,” Arellano said. Arellano was intending to go to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12 to personally lobby the Democratic House leadership to fulfill its pledges for legalization legislation. Immigrant rights advocates pledged to go in her place and are lobbying for a special bill to allow her to return to the U.S. and her son.

At her press conference, Arellano proposed a set of basic first-step proposals. She did not include a path to citizenship or a temporary worker program, saying those were “longer-term measures” and not the priority.

“Our priority is to keep our families together,” she said. “We believe that these proposals provide an interim solution to the current crisis.”

The proposals include:

• a safe-harbor visa for parents of U.S. citizen children,

• a temporary work visa for those now employed here without documents,

• reopening the Immigration Act’s section 245i, which allows immigrant spouses of citizens to get visas without returning to their home country,

• passage of the Child Citizen Protection Act to stop deportation of undocumented parents,

• passage of the DREAM Act and AgJobs legislation, which provide visas to students, military volunteers and farmworkers.

Her proposals also include an immediate moratorium on raids, deportations and separation of families.

The arrest and deportation of Arellano could complicate her mission and her struggle to reunite with her son. However, Arellano said Aug. 14, one year after she took sanctuary in Chicago, “God has protected me this long year, but I cannot sit by now and watch the lives of mothers and fathers like me and children like Saul be destroyed. I believe in my heart that the people of this nation do not, in their hearts, want to destroy our lives, our families and our communities. I believe, however, that we must come forward in the witness of faith to bring resolution to this crisis.”

Arellano is in the forefront of the millions of immigrant workers who are speaking out and taking risks for the right to work to support themselves and their families in dignity. They deserve the full support of all democratic forces.

Related stories on Elvira Arellano:

Mother on hunger strike for immigrant families, by Pepe Lozano

Immigrant mother defends son’s future, by Pepe Lozano

Madre indocumentada sigue luchando por su hijo, por Pepe Lozano