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Church continues to offer sanctuary for mother, son

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A UMNS photo by Linda S. Rhodes

Bishops Minerva Carcaņo and Hee-Soo Jung pray with Elvira Arellano (right) and her son, Saul, 7.
Aug. 23, 2006

By Linda S. Rhodes

CHICAGO (UMNS) — Since mid-August, Elvira Arellano and her 7-year-old son, Saul, have found sanctuary in Adalberto United Methodist Church.

Arellano, lay leader of the church, has asked for sanctuary against the threat of being deported from the United States. Members of the small Hispanic congregation, located in a storefront at 2716 W. Division St. in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, have rallied around Arellano, granting her sanctuary and allowing her to live in the church while she attempts to stay in this country with her son, who is a U.S. citizen.

“She asked us for sanctuary,” said the Rev. Walter Coleman, Adalberto’s pastor. “She’s a member of our church. We love her. We prayed about it, and we believe God asked us to provide a space where the voice of the marginalized can be heard. We pray that God will continue to protect her.”

Bishop Minerva Carcaņo will be interviewed Aug. 23 by the Fox News Channel on the church’s stand on immigration and Arellano. Portions of the interview will air on “Special Report with Brit Hume” at 6 p.m. Eastern time. Carcaņo was interviewed Aug. 16 on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight.”

During that interview Carcaņo, bishop of the denomination’s Phoenix area, spoke in support of Arellano. “The United Methodist Church stands with families like Miss Arellano. It is an issue of justice that she be allowed to stay with her young son.”

Becoming an activist

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A UMNS photo by Linda S. Rhodes

The Rev. Walter Coleman (right) is interviewed by news reporters in front of Adalberto United Methodist Church.

Arellano, a 31-year-old single mother, came to the United States from Mexico in 1997 without documents. When she first tried to enter the country, she was turned back. Three days later, she walked across the border.

She lived in the state of Washington, where she met Saul’s father. They split up, and in 2000, Arellano brought her son to Chicago. She got a job at O’Hare International Airport cleaning airplanes.

In December 2002, she was caught in a federal raid on O’Hare looking for undocumented immigrants. She was arrested and put in deportation proceedings. That’s when she joined Adalberto United Methodist Church.

Her son had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and other health problems, so she asked U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, both Democrats from Illinois, for help. They managed to obtain approval of a private relief bill on her behalf that gave her an extension to remain in the United States.

She became active in the immigrant rights movement and established La Familia Latina Unida, an outreach of Adalberto that helps families separated or on the verge of being separated by existing U.S. immigration laws. Earlier this year, she went on a hunger strike to demand an immediate moratorium on raids and deportations.

She was ordered to report to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Chicago at 9 a.m. Aug. 15. Instead, she went to church.

“I believe that this order is selective, vindictive, retaliatory and inhumane,” Arellano said. “One year ago, I was granted a stay while private bills in my behalf were pending in Congress. Nothing has changed since that stay was granted. Homeland Security has the legal power and, I believe, the obligation to extend this stay of deportation.”

She said she told her attorney to notify Deborah Achim, ICE Chicago Field Office director, of her decision and her location.

“Homeland Security knows where I am,” she said.

“I have done this because I do not wish my friends and community to be subjected to raids and harassment,” Arellano said. “Nor do I want Homeland Security to use me as an excuse to arrest and deport others like me and to try to destroy their families and the lives of their children.”

‘High spirits’

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A UMNS photo by Linda S. Rhodes

Elvira Arellano and son, Saul, 7, sit in the sanctuary of Adalberto United Methodist Church.

Two days after taking refuge in the church, Arellano sounded upbeat.

“I am in very high spirits because I am in the house of the Lord,” she said. “The church that from the beginning has opened their doors for me has never closed those doors.”

In a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, an immigration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there were no plans to enter the church and arrest her. The official said Arellano’s case carries “no more priority than any of the other 500,000 fugitives nationally.” She will be apprehended “at an appropriate time and place,” the official said.

Arellano said that if federal officials come to get her, “they won’t be dealing with me. They will be dealing with the wrath of God. This is the house of God.”

“We are all willing to help her,” said Beti Guevara, Adalberto assistant pastor. “The church has backed her up. We are going to do what Scripture tells us to do — to be with her and to comfort her because she is a child of God.”

Guevara said the congregation is “happy that our leaders are also supporting her.”

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung and the Rev. James Preston, Chicago Northwestern District superintendent, have visited Arellano to offer prayers and support. On Aug. 16, Bishop Carcaņo visited the church to pray with Elvira and her son.

Bishop Jung released a statement supporting Arellano’s action, saying she was “invoking the centuries-old Christian tradition of sanctuary” and “drawing upon the tradition of civil disobedience.”

“While as Christians we may disagree over the best way to fix the nation’s broken immigration system, we affirm that the Bible directs us to care for the foreigners in our midst (Exodus 23:9) and reminds us that we too are sojourners (Leviticus 25:23),” Jung said.

He also noted that the United Methodist Social Principles state that “governments and laws should be the servants of God and of human beings” and that the church recognizes “the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws that they deem to be unjust or that are discriminately enforced.”

The church will “uphold our commitment to families and urge the reunification of families now separated and those under threat of separation by our current broken immigration laws,” Jung said.

Prayer services

Congressman Gutierrez visited Arellano and brought her copies of letters he had written on her behalf to President George Bush and John Hostettler, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley sent a copy of a letter he wrote to ICE’s Achim asking for an extension of Arellano’s stay of deportation.

The congregation has been holding prayer services “day and night,” Guevara said. Referring to Psalm 23, she added: “We tell Elvira she’s walking through the valley. She’s not standing in it.”

Church offices have been turned into a bedroom where Arellano and her son can sleep. Members of the congregation are always in the church, watching over the mother and her child.

Church members believe Arellano has been singled out for deportation because of her advocacy for reforming immigration laws.

“We feel she’s being punished because of her activism,” Guevara said.

“We salute Elvira’s courage,” Pastor Coleman said. “She could have chosen to just disappear and become one of the invisible 12 million (undocumented immigrants) in this country. Instead she is standing up for her people and her son. She is doing this so her son will know he is a child of God, a dignified person.”

“I am not a terrorist,” Arellano said. “I am not a criminal. I am not a fugitive. I am a mom. I love my son. My son is a U.S. citizen. My son says, ‘Mom, please stay here with me.’ So, I will stay here with my son.”

*Rhodes is director of communications, Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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