Elvira’s Sanctuary

REPORTER: Sophie McNeill

On May 1, millions took to the streets of America’s cities and towns in a nationwide protest.


But these people aren’t Americans – they’re undocumented immigrants. And there are now 12 million illegal workers like these in the United States.

SPANISH PROTESTERS, (Translation): Here we are. We won’t leave! And if you throw us out, we will come back!

It’s created a second tier workforce where those desperate enough will do the job for about half of what an American citizen would be paid.

LATINO MAN: We do the job that the American people they don’t want to do because it’s hard and the pay is cheap.

The sheer number of migrants has created a backlash, and there’s huge pressure on President Bush to stop the flow and deport those already here. One of those facing deportation is 31-year-old Elvira Arrellano. Like many of the members of this congregation in suburban Chicago, she is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.

ELVIRA, (Translation): It was at about 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning when they came and knocked on my door.

Deportation raids are becoming increasingly common, and communities like this now live in fear of being deported at any time.

ELVIRA, (Translation): They handcuffed me and arrested me and I was under arrest for about 12 hours and that day at around 8pm I was presented in court in front of a federal judge.

Elvira decided to take a stand, and she has now become the public face of a campaign for the rights of illegal immigrants across America.

ELVIRA, (Translation): It’s unfair, because of the fact we are working to survive and we also help provide a better life for Americans. And now they are treating us like terrorists. It’s not fair.

Like all children born in the United States, Elvira’s 7-year-old son Saulito is an American citizen. Elvira believes it’s a violation of his constitutional rights to be forced to leave America with her.

ELVIRA, (Translation): If I’m deported he is also going to be deported against his will. He doesn’t want to go to Mexico. He says that he doesn’t have friends there. Here he has his friends, his school, his church is here.

She began to fight her deportation order, but when that failed this August Elvira decided to claim sanctuary in her local church to protect herself from the immigration authorities.

ELVIRA, (Translation): Sometimes restaurants send us cooked meals. We have a microwave that some people donated to us. This our bed, this is where Saulito and I sleep.

Church sanctuary is an age-old tradition, but it’s not enshrined in law. And immigration officials could forcibly remove Elvira any day.

ELVIRA, (Translation): From the first day I stepped into the church our case has been covered by all the newspapers.

SAULITO: That’s her mother and that’s her dad.

REPORTER: So it’s your grandparents, yeah? Yeah.

SAULITO (Translation): They are talking about you – “Arellano’s parents pray for their daughter.”

ELVIRA: This is my sister.

SAULITO, (Translation): She looks the same as you.

ELVIRA, (Translation): She looks like me?

SAULITO, (Translation): Yes.

At the time of her arrest, Elvira had been cleaning aeroplanes at Chicago’s O’Hare International for $6.50 an hour.

ELVIRA, (Translation): I used to work from 5pm till 2 or 3 in the morning. My job was to clean plane seats. I had to make sure they didn’t have biscuit crumbs.

JOSE LOPEZ, UNIVERSITY LECTURER: We see them working in every hospital, we see them working in every hotel, we see them picking the fruits. We see them everywhere. And yet, they are nowhere.

Local university lecturer Jose Lopez has brought his history class to hear about Elvira’s campaign.

JOSE LOPEZ: Every undocumented person in this country is outside of the law. They have no protection. They are like the slaves. So when Elvira did this it was to give a face to 11 million people who are faceless.

ELVIRA, (Translation): I want the whole world to turn around and see the United States and see there is a big problem here. And it’s not only mine but also belongs to more than 12 million undocumented immigrants.

JOSE LOPEZ: I believe that if you look at the history of the United States today you will see that the wealth of this country is really premised on the poverty of Latin America and that, in actual fact, it is a continuation of that same reality that started with the issuance of the policy statement known as the Moreau Act, the Moreau document, which made Latin America into a backyard of the United States, and that’s how the United States treats Latin America and that’s how it treats the Latin American people – as residents of their backyard. And they can do whatever they want and they built their wealth, really, on that backyard and we’re saying that has to stop.

Elvira has received letters of support from all over the country.

ELVIRA, (Translation): This is a cheque that Mr Kim O’Brien sent me, and he sent me a letter saying that while he’s till working he will send me $7 a week.

But many Americans resent the increasing ‘latinisation’ of the United States.

RICK BIESADA, COUNTRY RADIO: Good evening, ladies and gentleman. Welcome to another edition of ‘Perspectives on our Heritage’.

Rick Biesada runs a local conservative radio program in Chicago.

RICK BIESADA: Secure your country’s liberty – join the Chicago Minuteman Project at www.chicagominutemanprojec上海按摩,m or give us a call.

He’s president of the local ‘Minutemen’ – a group fiercely opposed to immigration.

RICK BIESADA: If she is allowed to stay in this country every illegal alien that’s in this country right now – all they have to do is run to a church somewhere and claim sanctuary. Now, these people want to come over here and tell us what to do. They want to try to influence our senators and our representatives. What they should be doing is going back to Mexico and influencing their politicians over there to change their country around and have better conditions for the Mexican people in Mexico.

But Elvira blames the American Government for making conditions tough in Mexico. Her own father lost his farm after Mexico signed the NAFTA free trade deal with the US.

ELVIRA, (Translation): He, like other farmers, was really affected by NAFTA because they cannot compete with the grains coming from the US, because the grains coming from the US are bigger.

The next morning Saulito is up early. Because Elvira can’t leave the church, it’s up to him to raise awareness about their case. There are more than 3 million children in the same position as Saulito. American citizens whose parents live underground lives and risk separation from their families because they don’t have papers.

WOMAN: So have you been on radio before, Saul?


WOMAN: How many times?

SAULITO: I think two or three.

WOMAN: OK, and then what else are you going to say – say how old you are?


WOMAN: Well, you’ve got to say it in Spanish. When you’re ready, you just talk right in there.

SAULITO (Translation): My name is Saul Arrellano. I want you to register to vote so my mum and other families can stay here and please stop the raids and deportations, so register and vote so the families can stay together.

Also claiming sanctuary in the church after a deportation order is 27-year-old Flor. She came here specifically to make money to send back to her three children who she left behind with her mother in Mexico. And Flor hasn’t seen them in six years.

FLOR, (Translation): I don’t feel that I abandoned them. Sometimes you as a mother – you have to leave them so they can have… oh, I’m going to start crying again, so they can have a better life because I admire those mothers that decide to cross the desert with their three or four kids but I couldn’t do it. The most important thing in life is your children. And thanks to God I have my children’s support. And they give me the strength not to go back like a coward.

ELVIRA, (Translation): Did you brush your teeth?

SAULITO, (Translation): No.

ELVIRA, (Translation): So go and brush your teeth.

SAULITO, (Translation): Why?

ELVIRA, (Translation): Because I need them clean, otherwise you will get infections and you will need to go to the dentist. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Up early the next morning is Flor’s boyfriend Julio. He works as a welder at a local factory where he gets $8 an hour.

JULIO, (Translation): Sometimes I work for 10 hours in a row. Sometimes more like 12 or 14 hours.

Julio has not yet been caught by immigration, and he lives in a constant state of anxiety.

JULIO, (Translation): For example, right now I’m driving but I don’t have a driver’s licence but I cannot get one because I don’t have documents so I cannot get my driver’s licence.

Like Elvira, almost a third of the illegal immigrants in America use fake social security numbers to get their jobs. This leads to the automatic deduction of taxes from their payrolls. And every year, more than $7 billion in taxes is collected from illegal migrants.

ELVIRA, (Translation): Why since the first day you received my taxes you didn’t realise there was something wrong here? Why didn’t you the government say, “Oh, there is a lot of undocumented people?”

Elvira believes the US Government gave its tacit approval for her to work here by accepting her taxes, year after year.

ELVIRA, (Translation): For over 20 years the immigration laws have been ignored, so don’t tell us we came here to break the law because they were broken already and the government hasn’t done anything to fix them.

Elvira, like millions of others, is still waiting for the politicians to decide her fate, but she has no regrets over taking a stand.

ELVIRA, (Translation): When Saulito was born I made a promise that we would always be together, that we will always be together. In a rough moment like what I’ve gone through I think that any woman would have done the same and give her son the best.





Executive Producer: