Mother on hunger strike for immigrant families

CHICAGO — “I’m real emotional these days, especially because of what’s happening with all the raids and deportations,” said Elvira Arellano. Along with her pastor, the Rev. Walter Coleman, Arellano began a 25-day hunger strike on Good Friday, April 6. The hunger strike will end May 1, when thousands nationwide are expected to march and rally for immigrant and workers’ rights.

Arellano, 32, an immigrant from Mexico, is fighting a deportation order so she can remain with her son Saul, age 8, who is a U.S. citizen. Since last August, she has been in sanctuary at Adalberto United Methodist Church here.

Arellano, president of La Familia Latina Unida, an immigrant rights group, said in a statement, “I’m starting this hunger strike, on the eve of Good Friday, as a prayer that our people will mobilize, that the hearts of the people of this nation will open and that elected officials will act to preserve our families and the holy bond between children and their parents. I pray that not one more family will be separated, not one more child left behind.”

She says she feels more emotional than ever hearing the stories of immigrant families rounded up and parents separated from their children in the recent escalation of federal raids and deportations.

Arrests of undocumented workers jumped from 485 in 2002 to 3,667 in 2006, an increase of 750 percent, according to a recent story in the Boston Globe.

Last December immigration agents arrested 1,297 workers at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in six states. As of March 1, 2007, 649 of those workers had been deported.

The raids left children stranded as many parents were detained in out-of-state federal detention centers allowing little or no communication with their families.

Parents deported from the U.S. face the choice of taking their citizen children with them, or being separated from them permanently if the children remain here in hope of better opportunities.

According to a study by the Urban Institute and the Pew Hispanic Center, there are 3.1 million American-born children of immigrant parents in the U.S. In the Swift plants raided last December in Worthington, Minn., the immigrant workers had at least 360 U.S.-born children.

When Arellano was arrested in 2002, she says, immigration agents told her that Saul would be handed over to the state Department of Children and Family Services.

“Immigration officials are not respecting the workers and especially their children who suffer the most,” she told the World. “I don’t just struggle for me and my son but for the entire undocumented and immigrant community,” she added. “If we want legalization we have to be united and our voices have to be lifted in collective spirit.”

Coleman said the hunger strike seeks “to demand an end to the raids and deportations and to fight the idea that we are afraid.”

“Everybody agrees immigration laws are broken and both parties in Congress are trying to fix it,” he said. With the new congressional leadership, “there is an opening now” for progressive change. Referring to the harsh anti-immigrant bill introduced in late 2005 by Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Coleman said, “We may have stopped HR 4437, but we haven’t stopped the enforcement.”

The Bush administration is carrying out some of HR 4437’s aims, such as building a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border and stepping up raids and deportations.

He compared the situation of 12 million undocumented immigrant workers to “a lottery, a very evil system where you never know when your number is up, and it could be your father or mother next.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) has introduced a bipartisan immigrant-friendly bill, HR 1645, which includes border security, worker identification, undocumented legalization and a temporary worker program with paths to citizenship, making family reunification a priority.

Arellano, Coleman and their supporters say Gutierrez’s measure would provide some immediate protections. “We’re not at that point in history to put out the perfect bill,” said Coleman, “but we are at the point to pass something in Congress to protect immigrant families and their children now.”

Bush’s plan, said Coleman, would “send all undocumented workers with their families back and then bring in single workers with no rights.” It is part of a global system that forces people out of their countries to come to the U.S., Coleman said. They are driven not by the American dream, but the “American nightmare” that is destroying the economies of their home countries. Arellano and others like her came to the U.S. for survival, he noted.

Coleman is urging religious leaders across the country to join in the immigrant rights movement with hunger strikes of their own, and by providing sanctuary to immigrant workers threatened with deportation.

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