"With God as my witness, I am not a criminal. I am not a terrorist. I am a mother who doesn't want to be separated from her son," said Mexican immigrant Elvira Arellano from the makeshift room she calls home and shares with her 7-year-old US-citizen son, Saul, on the second floor of her church on Chicago's West Side. Arellano, who made national headlines after taking refuge in Adalberto United Methodist Church instead of reporting to the DHS for deportation, provides moral, spiritual and political inspiration to a movimiento trying to redefine itself. "What is most important is that we, the inmigrantes, lead the struggle; we have to ask pastors, churches and other citizens to support us as we find a way to stop deportations and struggle for legalization," said Arellano.
The 31-year-old mother says she drew her own inspiration from the Central American immigrants she recently met during visits to California and Boston. They shared with her, she said, their experiences in building the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when refugees who were denied political asylum after fleeing US-backed governments in Guatemala and El Salvador persuaded US citizens of many denominations to declare their churches sanctuaries. Elected officials in places like Los Angeles and Madison, Wisconsin, made their cities sanctuaries, prohibiting law enforcement cooperation with immigration officials, and many of these sanctuary ordinances are still in force. Arellano has had to face numerous death threats, hate letters and anti-immigrant protesters who believe she is a lawbreaker and should be deported. But this has only strengthened her resolve.
"We're watching the birth of a new sanctuary movement, and many are drawing inspiration from Elvira," says Angela Sanbrano, president of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), a network of more than seventy-five immigrant-led organizations in twelve states. "A lot of the repressive local and national policies against immigrants use a national security and anti-terrorist framework," adds Sanbrano, who herself received death threats from Salvadoran paramilitary operatives and whose offices were infiltrated by FBI agents during the Central America sanctuary movement. "They use these strategies to develop fear, to create a chilling effect."
In such a climate, says Sanbrano, who is also a leader in several national coalitions, including the Latino Congreso and the We Are America Coalition, "priority number one is challenging this fear by helping people understand their rights, by letting them know about this thing called the Constitution that says we can speak out and question immoral laws. Priority two is changing those laws." Sanbrano attends weekly meetings with church and other Los Angeles groups planning to continue the sanctuary tradition started in churches like the late Father Luis Olivares's La Placita church, where immigrants received food, housing and protection from immigration officials. During her travels across the country, Sanbrano says, she has encountered numerous church and community members who are preparing for the possibility that, rather than reform laws and legalize the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants like Arellano, Congress will create laws that further facilitate their exploitation. And some believe even worse things may transpire.
Nativo Lopez, head of Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, a California-based association engaged in advocacy and organizing as well as legal and social services, says he already sees the effects of the more repressive immigration policies. "Since the marches, our offices are getting calls daily from people whose homes have been raided, from the families of workers who've been captured," says Lopez, who is also one of the key members of the recently formed National Alliance for Immigrant Rights, a grouping of more than 400 organizations calling for an end to deportations and roundups and for full legalization of all immigrants.
Lopez has several fears about what may happen if the crackdown intensifies. The DHS is poised to implement new regulations for so-called "no match" letters, which are sent to employers by the Social Security Administration, or the DHS informing them of inconsistencies between government records and the information provided by workers. These letters are commonly used by employers as grounds for dismissal or to deny workers their rights. Lopez and Hermandad have started laying the groundwork for workplace committees to defend against the threats posed by the new regulations.
Echoing concerns about the melding of migration and national security in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, activistas in the United States are cognizant of the unique problems posed to the movimiento by the rise of a national security state here. And like the millions of Mexicans organizing against what they consider fraudulent elections and increased government repression just a stone's throw across the militarized border, activistas here face colossal challenges. But rather than succumb to what they consider repression disguised as the defense of freedom since 9/11, Yañez, Arellano and many other leaders in the movimiento respond by opting to use hope, faith and good strategy in their own defense--in the process translating and defining "freedom" into and on their own terms.