Elvira Arellano: Inspiring the Immigrant Rights Struggle

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Candles shone brightly in the hands of Latino immigrants and
their supporters, as vigils were held in communities across the
country to protest the capture of Elvira Arellano by U.S. Immigration
and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Over the last
year, Arellano has become a powerful figure of resistance in
the struggle for immigration rights in the United States.
An activist for immigrant rights and president of La Familia
Latina Unida (The United Latino Family), Arellano was
apprehended August 19 outside of Our Lady Queen of Angeles
Church in downtown Los Angeles. Separated from her
eight-year-old son, Elvira Arellano was arrested and immediately
deported to Mexico the same night. She had traveled
with her son and fellow activists to urge immigrant supporters
to travel to Washington D.C. on September 12 to participate
in a national vigil on behalf of immigrant rights.
Arellano, a native of San Miguel Curahuango, Michoacán,
entered the U.S. in 1997, but was apprehended within days
and deported. Tenacious, she quickly reentered the country
and found her way to Seattle. She arrived in Chicago in
2000, taking a job cleaning airplanes at O’Hare International
Airport. In 2002, following a post-September 11 security
sweep at O’Hare, Arellano was arrested and convicted of
working under a false social security number and sentenced
to three years probation. She was later ordered to appear
before immigration authorities on August 15, 2006, facing
the likelihood of deportation. Unwilling
to risk separation from her son, she
challenged the order of the Immigration
and Customs Enforcement Office, by
taking refuge with her son inside the
Adalberto United Methodist Church in
Chicago, where parishioners and clergy
alike embraced her courageous decision
with open arms.
On November 14, 2006, her young
son, Saul, traveled to Mexico to address
the Mexican Congress, pleading for help
in stopping the deportation of his mother.
In response, the Mexican government
passed a resolution against deportations, appealing to
humanitarian principles of family cohesion. But despite this
seemingly benevolent gesture, Mexico’s oppressive role in
this drama cannot be overlooked. Just prior to entering the
U.S., Elvira Arellano, like so many young women of her generation,
earned $1.20 an hour, working six days a week and
12 hours a day as a maquiladora worker on the border.
Hence, the Mexican government is as much responsible for
the conditions that force Mexican citizens to brave the
treacherous and oftentimes bloody journey across an
increasingly militarized border zone.
The U.S./Mexico border is one of the most contentious
geopolitical arenas in the world. Since the signing of the
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, increasing violence and
conflict, fueled by a variety of political and economic pressures,
has plagued the region. In the last decade alone, campaigns
for the militarization of the border by official border
patrol agents and private vigilantes have prevailed. The names
given to these campaigns—Operation Rio Grande at the
Brownsville-Matamoros border, Operation Hold the Line at
the El Paso-Juarez border, and the Minuteman Project at the
San Diego-Tijuana border—attest to the war-like mentality.
In the midst of this intensification of border security, Elvira
Arellano is only one of the estimated 12,000,000 undocumented
immigrants in the U.S. to cross the border. According
to Human Rights Watch reports, of those who were unable to
enter successfully, over 3,000 have died in the last five years.
The unsolved murders of almost 400 young maquiladora
workers in the border cities of Juarez and Chihuahua are considered
by some to be directly linked to the viciousness of the
on-going contested border politics of the region.
Relentless U.S./Mexico border hostilities have fueled powerful
anti-immigrant sentiments expressed by the media, local
municipalities, and neo-conservative political pundits. In
December 2005, the House passed HR 4437 (or the Sensenbrenner
Bill) that called for the deportation of all illegal immigrants
and proposed making it a felony to offer them any
assistance. A poll released by the Pew Research Center in
2006 concluded “the majority of Americans (53 percent)
think all 11 million illegals should be required to go home.”
Such political and popular support for mass deportations
is fueled by mean-spirited portrayals of Mexican
immigrants as dirty, uncivilized, and dangerous. The criminalization
of immigrants, for instance, is widespread in
the rhetoric of Americans for Legal Immigration website,
where every other entry seems to link undocumented
immigrants to accounts of homicide or sexual assaults.
These attitudes prevail despite reports by the National
Bureau of Economic Research and the Immigration Policy
Center that conclude “…immigrants commit crimes at
one-tenth what would be expected given their demographics”
and they do not cause crime rates to increase.
Since November 2005, the Bush administration has actively
promoted efforts to get a grip on illegal immigration,
through a plan to tighten border security and immigration
law enforcement, as well as expand a guest-worker program.
Hence, it was not surprising that both these measures
were at the heart of President Bush’s
May 2007 “compassionate conservative”
plan for immigration.
The president’s proposed national
guest worker program would potentially
allow millions of undocumented immigrants
to work legally in the U.S. on a
temporary basis, before forcing them to
return home. In many ways, the program
would legally sustain the creation of a
permanent underclass of exploitable
workers. Chairman Charles Rangel (DNY)
of the House Ways and Means Committee
adamantly opposed expansion of
the H-2 guest worker program, asserting that “This guest
worker program’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to slavery.”
Rangel’s view echoes the sentiments of former Department of
Labor official Lee Williams who once described the old “Bracerro”
program as a system of “legalized slavery.”
Labor advocates see the current H-2 guest worker system
as a modern system of indentured servitude, but worse.
Worse, because the new bill fails to include any provisions
for legalization of today’s guest workers, limiting their path
to citizenship. Instead, when their visas are expired, they are
expected to leave the country, without any guarantee of visa
renewals in the future. As such, the guest worker program
serves as the perfect repository
for the disposable workers
of the U.S. global economy.
But despite all the hoopla
last May, the new bill, herald
as a product of a bipartisan
agreement, collapsed under
the weight of conservative
objections. It was revived
after an agreement was
reached among Republicans
to limit the number of
amendments, then failed
again on June 28, when another proposal to end the debate
was defeated. Given the current antagonisms on both sides
of the issue, it is unlikely that any congressional bill can be
successfully passed before the 2008 elections. This, of
course, has by no stretch of the imagination halted the
powerful apparatus of the Department of Homeland Security’s
Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In fact, immigration historian Ericka Lee reports that
“over a thousand would be immigrants are deported or
detained each month—a number that actually tripled in the
last year. Every year, hundreds of thousands of non-citizens,
including asylum seekers and those charged with violating
civil immigration laws, are now detained in county jails and
federal prisons. There are more than 300 facilities across the
country… 65 percent of detained illegal immigrants are in
state or local jails and prisons, 2 percent are in federal prisons,
14 percent in ICE-owned facilities and 19 percent in
contractors’ facilities. The U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement detention centers hold 28,000 illegal immigrants
in an average day, up from 18,000 in July 2006.”
The expected increase in immigrant detentions in the
future has spurred a national plan to triple detention space to
60,000 beds, in order to house the growing number of
immigrants caught as a result of the intensification of workplace
raids and border crackdowns. As the Bush administration
postures tough on illegal immigration and increases its
spending on enforcement, some of the biggest beneficiaries
are the companies that build and run private prisons around
the country. Last February, for example, the New York Times
reported that “The Army Corps of Engineers awarded a contract
worth up to $385 million for building temporary immigration
detention centers to Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton
subsidiary that has been criticized for overcharging
the Pentagon for its work in Iraq.”
Such government sanctioned profiteering, associated with
the intensification of immigrant enforcement and detention,
certainly brings to mind the manner in which U.S. capitalists
have historically reaped immoral dividends from the human
suffering of oppressed populations around the world. This has
been so, whether through the neoliberal policies of the globalized
free market, the international machinery of wartime, or
the domestic paramilitary apparatus of drug wars and immigration
enforcement—forces that consign undocumented
immigrant workers like Arellano to the mercy of capital and
arbitrary enforcement.
Yet, like Arellano, scores of undocumented immigrants from
Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, continue to
make the arduous journey northward seeking a better quality
of life for themselves and their families. Their trek northward
is the most logical response to the global structures of
inequality. They move from geographical regions where
wealth concentrations are low to the USA, where concentrations
of capital are high and density is still low by world standards.
They also move to the region of the world that has the
highest consumption rate of all industrialized nations.
Despite widespread human rights failures long associated
with the lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.,
reactionary anti-immigrant campaigns have a devastating
impact on the current climate, fueling human rights violations
at the border, in the workplace, and on the streets. For
example, two days after Arellano’s deportation, federal
immigration authorities in
North Carolina raided the
Smithfield Foods packing
plant, detaining 28 current
and former workers of the
plant. Immigration officials
arrived in the middle of
night at local mobile home
parks. They targeted areas
heavily populated by poor
immigrant workers and
their families, arresting people
in their homes. Eyewitnesses
reported that immigration
enforcement agents forced women to leave their children behind. Others were arrested at their job, without
opportunity to communicate with their families.
Concerned with the rampant violation of immigrant
workers’ human rights, the Immigrant Workers Freedom
Rides campaign was organized in 2003. Nearly one thousand
immigrant workers and their allies boarded buses in
Seattle and traveled across the United States, holding rallies
in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las
Vegas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Houston, Miami and Boston.
The campaign issued four central demands, seeking to
abolish anti-immigrant abuses, such as those suffered by
the Smithfield Foods workers. The demands included 1)
legalization and a “road to citizenship”; 2) family reunification;
3) immigrants’ rights in the workplace; and 4) civil
rights and civil liberties for all. These four demands were
also meant to signal the need for a global human rights
agenda for immigrants around the world. The agenda reinforces
the human dignity and sovereignty of people like
Arellano, forced into exile by the rapidly declining quality
of life in Latin America—a phenomenon directly tied to
U.S. foreign economic policies in the region.
Moreover, the issue of family reunification, as highlighted
by the immigrant freedom riders, dramatically exposes
the racialized hypocrisy of neo-conservatives, who seem to
speak family values only when it refers to U.S., white,
Christian, and economically privileged citizens. Yet, the
value of family is central to the concerns of Arellano and
her organization, La Familia Latina Unida. In fact, according
to La Voz de Aztlan, Arellano spent a good part of her
meeting with Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón, on
August 28, discussing the plight of over 600,000 undocumented
mothers with children who are U.S. citizens, in
danger of being deported and separated from their families.
Elvira Arellano, like so many before her, has taken a
courageous step to break out of the disempowerment of
economic oppression. Her strength has come through joining
with others in building political commitment and widereaching
solidarity. Her example beckons us to become
empowered, responsible, and active citizens of the world.

About Antonia Darder

Antonia Darder is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a longtime Puerto Rican activist-scholar involved in issue's relating to education, language, immigrant workers, and women's rights.
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