Church Gives Woman Sanctuary from Deportation Immigration rights activists are calling for rallies and boycotts Tuesday against a federal crackdown on undocumented workers. In Chicago, one woman has avoided deportation for eight months by taking refuge in a church.
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Church Gives Woman Sanctuary from Deportation

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Church Gives Woman Sanctuary from Deportation

Church Gives Woman Sanctuary from Deportation

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Immigration rights activists are calling for rallies and boycotts today like those of a year ago. Congress is still trying to reform immigration policy, and this week MORNING EDITION looks at different parts of the debate. We begin in Chicago with a woman who has spent the last eight months in Church.

Elvira Arellano was facing deportation when she sought sanctuary in a church on Chicago's West Side. And we have report this morning from Chicago Public Radio's Robert Wildeboer.

ROBERT WILDEBOER: Elvira Arellano is kneeling on a kitchen floor with 10 supporters who have come to visit her today at Adalberto United Methodist Church. They're in a circle holding hands and praying for more favorable immigration laws.

WILDEBOER: The kitchen where they pray is at the back of the second floor apartment/church office where Arellano has been living. In eight months, she's never left this small piece of real estate. She has only one private room, her bedroom. But she shares that too.

(Soundbite of barking dog)

Ms. ELVIRA ARELLANO (Illegal Immigrant): This is my dog Daisy.

WILDEBOER: Daisy looks like a Doberman, but as you can guess from the bark, she's the size of a Chihuahua. Speaking through an interpreter, Arellano says she passes the time by simply staying busy.

Ms. ARELLANO: (Through translator) Every day reporters come by. At night I'm on MySpace, where I have over 200 and something friends. I'm always busy, so because I'm busy, I'm not bored.

WILDEBOER: In 2002, Arellano was arrested while working at O'Hare Airport. She was convicted of Social Security fraud for using a fake Social Security number and ordered to be deported. She didn't want to raise her U.S.-borne son out of the country but she didn't want to leave him here without her either.

It was then that she decided to join the 600,000 other people in this country who have defied deportation orders. But instead of silently disappearing, she very publicly sought sanctuary at this church, daring immigration officials to arrest her on a holy ground.

It's an idea that was used in the 1980s when churches put up the illegal immigrants fleeing political persecution in Guatemala and El Salvador. Once again political organizers are thinking this public sanctuary idea may be a good way to push the immigration debate forward.

Ms. MARTHA PEARCE(ph) (Activist): I was so excited when I heard that you guys were going to do some work on this.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

WILDEBOER: Martha Pearce is meeting with a college student in the cramped office of the non-profit she works for. The two are strategizing ways to get other churches in the area involved.

Ms. PEARCE: This is what I've sent out to our members so far.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Ms. PEARCE: And it's a copy of this pledge, which is kind of like a general summary of what we're asking people to do.

WILDEBOER: Pearce has sent the letter to about 80 churches. The responses can range from wanting to learn more about the sanctuary movement to offering to house an illegal immigrant. The movement is not just limited to immigrants from Latin America.

Al Licado(ph) works with African immigrants, and he's been in contact with a local minister willing to host people.

Mr. AL LICADO (African Immigrant Worker): This is the one time where we don't have to think twice to give you like 15-20 names in a minute. People are suffering silently, and it will be good for the rest of society to see the face of this problem.

Ms. CARLINA TAPIA RUANO (President, American Immigration Lawyers Association): I don't think it would be positive for our communities to have a bunch of sanctuaries and people holed up in different churches.

WILDEBOER: Carlina Tapia Ruano is the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Ms. TAPIA RUANO: I don't see that beneficial for the individuals who were held up in the churches. I don't see it as beneficial for those in the surrounding community, and I don't see that as any type of long-term solution.

WILDEBOER: Ruano says the only real fix for immigration problems will have to come from Congress. And she worries that the sanctuary movement will turn off American voters who haven't yet picked their side in the immigration debate. Furthermore, she says there's no legal basis for the sanctuary movement.

Tim Counts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly referred to as ICE, more or less confirms that in a carefully worded statement.

Mr. TIM COUNTS (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): ICE says the authority to arrest illegal aliens in all locales, and prioritizes its enforcement efforts based on investigative leads and intelligence.

WILDEBOER: Michael McConnell(ph) is a member of the First Church in Chicago to organize sanctuary 25 years ago. He says at that time immigration officials didn't violate any sanctuaries.

Mr. MICHAEL McCONNELL (Member, First Church, Chicago): The sanctuary then and now is important to lift up the human face, the individual stories that come out of economic refuge in this country.

WILDEBOER: McConnell says he thinks in the '80s those individual stories changed the political climate and led to the amnesty that was signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986. Organizers of the new sanctuary movement are hoping to unveil a coordinated campaign in the next few weeks with churches offering sanctuary in 20 cities nationwide.

For NPR News, I'm Robert Wildeboer in Chicago.

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