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Woman seeks sanctuary, but misses Mexico

Townsfolk shed light on why she and her son are holed up in a Chicago church to avoid going back to her homeland.

February 25, 2007|Oscar Avila | Chicago Tribune

SAN MIGUEL CURAHUANGO, MEXICO — To understand what led Elvira Arellano from this placid Mexican village to the edge of the U.S. immigration debate, visit the unassuming Don Goyo general store.

Behind a counter where they dispense everything from 2-liter bottles of soda to spoonfuls of laundry detergent, Arellano's parents keep two envelopes.

One shows what Arellano might have become if she had stayed: It contains the secretary's certificate she earned after finishing high school.

The other explains why she left: It holds X-rays showing the muscular dystrophy that has plagued her father for years and ultimately led his youngest daughter to search for a way to help support the family.

"Don't think she wanted to go," said her father, bracing against a counter for support. "She went with the illusion to help her father, to earn some 'green' to bring back. It didn't work out that way."

Ten years after she abandoned this town to immigrate illegally to the United States, Arellano has marked six months taking refuge above the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago. There she has resisted a government deportation order and staged a much-publicized campaign to stay in the U.S. with her 8-year-old American-born son, Saul.

Both critics and supporters in the U.S. view her defiance as a symbol of a broken immigration system. But to the residents of her hometown, she is a vivid example of Mexico failing its native sons and daughters, forcing them to confront the same choice of whether to stay or leave.

Arellano always thought she would grow old on a pleasant patch of land on Emiliano Zapata Avenue in this town, where a lone orange tree has stood for decades.

With her high school diploma, she had more advantages than many Mexicans. Because San Miguel was just outside Maravatio, a medium-size city 100 miles northwest of Mexico City, with a diverse economy driven by agriculture and furniture factories, Arellano was able to land a job and earn a steady income.

The calamitous 1994 devaluation of Mexico's peso was Arellano's impetus to leave. First, she tried her luck in Mexico's border regions, then in Washington state and finally in Chicago.

"If I could have helped them and stayed in my country, I would have," Arellano said, speaking of her parents.

She said that if the 12 million people who were in the U.S. illegally were asked, they would say they would have preferred to stay in their home countries. "Of course they would," she said. "Who wouldn't?"

She was arrested in 2002 during an immigration sweep at O'Hare International Airport, where she worked as a cleaner. After sympathetic lawmakers secured several stays of deportation, she finally was ordered to leave the country in August. She defied that order and sought sanctuary in the church.

The residents of San Miguel, especially the younger generation, can understand her experience.

Dolores Ruiz, a young man who is a family acquaintance, probably would have followed her trail from San Miguel. But because his other siblings left for the U.S., he stayed with his elderly mother to make $100 a week with their small corner store.

Ruiz, 21, said nearly every young man and woman in town faced the same choice Arellano did. But he said he realized more and more that Arellano was unique.

"She has a tremendous courage," Ruiz said. "Not every Mexican confronts the most powerful nation in the world."

Mauricio Avila, 25, did come to Chicago, and now, back in San Miguel, he finds himself reconsidering his prospects. In his wallet, he still carries the business card of the Aurora day-labor agency that found him jobs in suburban plants.

Avila paid $1,500 to cross through the Arizona desert, and found life in Chicago to be lonely and unfulfilling. He returned to San Miguel in August, just as Arellano was making international headlines.

Now a caretaker at the St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, Avila understands the motivation to leave but grieves over how immigration has shattered families and robbed San Miguel of its brightest young residents.

Avila is taking classes with the hope of becoming an elementary school teacher. He watches schoolchildren playing across the street and worries about what lies ahead for them.

"I don't want them to have to suffer in another country," he said.

Arellano has her admirers in San Miguel, but her parents say many in town mock their daughter's defiance. Skeptics say Arellano is foolish to imprison herself in the church, her parents said.

Arellano's parents are especially sensitive when the local news media describe her as a "fugitive." Arellano was convicted of identity theft in the U.S., but her parents complain that the label makes her sound like a dangerous criminal.

Arellano said her actions had always been guided by what was best for her son. As a U.S. citizen, he wouldn't technically be deported. But because Arellano is a single mother, the boy would leave the country with her.

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