The deportation of immigrant rights activist Elvira Arellano by federal authorities on August 20 has been seen either as a blow or as the reigniting of the immigrant rights movement. I know I have seen my fair share of comments of support on this blog, as well a large number of vile comments about her and her plight that are still in the moderation queue. As humans, we have a tendency to demonize a person to justify our dislike. Regardless how a person worded their comment, their message was the same, Arellano is just another attention grabbing, “criminal alien and immigration fugitive,” unfairly using her American-born son as an Elián González for a pro-immigration agenda.
Arellano, the woman at the center of the storm is a 32-year old single mother, a former airport worker and undocumented immigrant. On Aug 15, 2006, Arellano took her son Saúl, born in the US and therefore a citizen, and entered Adalberto United Methodist church. Since then, she has spent a year living in that church to avoid deportation.
During the year she took refuge in the church, her struggle has help put a human face on the heartless deportations of our nation’s undocumented immigrants. She not only has become the spokesperson for the New Sanctuary Movement, but a symbol of resistance for the broader immigrant rights movement.
In response to the arrest, supporters came out for a vigil in front of the ICE building in Chicago. The next morning, 150 supporters showed up at the ICE building to protest the arrest and deportation. In Los Angeles, mayor Antonio Villaraigosa released a statement on the “manner of the arrest and deportation” of Elvira Arellano. Later that night, a vigil was held in front of the Federal Building downtown. Here in Houston, a vigil was held in front of the Mickey Leland Federal Bldg on Monday evening and later in the week, a press conference was called by el Central American Resource Center (CRECEN), to vocalize our support and solidarity with Elvira and Saul.
Over the weekend, several thousand marched through downtown L.A. in a show of unity and support for Elvira. The main demand was full rights for all immigrants. Police closed off streets as hundreds of demonstrators, including many families with young children, marched up Broadway on Saturday carrying large photos of Arellano and her 8-year-old son, Saul. Others raised placards reading “We are all Elvira!”
It is not hard to speculate the reasons behind ICE’s motives in deporting her in record time. What normally would have taken days for those who face removal, this was not the case for Elvira. Oftentimes, those who do not have the resources to keep up with the rapid homeland security legal changes, become unexpectedly entangled in the system without a sense of their legal and human rights. One has to wonder about the brevity of the deportation process ICE took to deport Elvira. One could argue that she was just another victim of Homeland Security’s most recent expanded procedure of expedited removal against non-U.S. citizens, which was established by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Expedited removal is a procedure that enables a DHS official to remove a non-citizen without the procedural safeguards of a removal hearing or review by an immigration judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals, and significantly, including the right to counsel.
Because there is no immigration judge or the Board of Immigration Appeals review over expedited removal decisions and only limited judicial review, a low-level immigration officer’s authority to decide that an individual is removable and to order removal is virtually unchecked. The officer’s decision to place the person in expedited rather than regular removal proceedings can result in the person losing substantive rights. Indeed, there are already reports that Elvira was denied her rights. According to Adhemir Olguin, spokesperson for the Mexican Consulate in Houston, said officials are concerned with the manner ICE handled the deportation of Elvira Arellano because she was denied consular access.
The issue of deportation remains invisible too many. There is a dangerous misconception that deportations are uniform in and arbitrary across all immigrant groups; that these acts of detention and deportation are simply routine governmental practices to regulate migration flows. This is not the case. Washington’s failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform has been direct and profound consequences on real families. When laws fail to serve justly the most basic human needs, they are flawed and incomplete. Detention often occurs as part of the removal and deportation process. With limited or no due process, immigrants facing removal become confused, isolated from family members, and can be placed with violent criminals. The “detention process” is often shrouded in secrecy, with detainees being repeatedly denied prompt access to attorneys and relatives.
To learn that Elvira was denied consular access, is not surprising, in light of findings by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its 2005 Report on Asylum Seekers in Expedited Removal, a mandated study of the expedited removal policy to determine how the procedure was affecting asylum-seekers. The study found serious flaws in DHS’s implementation of the Expedited Removal policy that puts immigrants at risk of being returned to countries where they may face persecution, and it also documented that they were “detained inappropriately, under prison-like conditions and in actual jails.” Just recently, USCIRF found that problems it found two-years ago have not been fixed most of its recommendations were not carried out by Homeland Security and the Justice Department.
USCIRF chair Felice D. Gaer noted that “we see no significant difference between the situations of then and now–with the exception that Expedited Removal was expanded in spite of our explicit recommendation to hold off on that.”
As we begin to understand the full implications of “homeland security” on immigration, it is important we begin having a serious multi-national dialogue. Elvira Arellano’s deportation is a wake-up call for America. It’s time to say, ¡Basta! We have had enough exploitation, abuse and exclusion.
While immigrant laws and their enforcement remain a primary venue for racism in general, it has become an expression of imperialism directed inward against its own citizens and residents. As a consequence, all those who are seen as “foreign” are viewed as a legal, cultural, political, and economic threat to the security of US land, culture, and way of life.
What forces will protect us from the evils imposed on and within society under the banner of terrorism on the one hand, or under the banner of protecting us from terrorism on the other? What forces do we need to ensure that our civil liberties are not trampled on? That people are not denied their basic human rights? That our political and other leaders do not trample on the presumption of innocence until proven guilty; the protection of habeas corpus; freedom of the press; freedom of association; and equal rights under the law without fear? These are the dark clouds that currently hang over our heads, and it can only be removed through our active involvement and participation.
In order to resolve the immigration issues, we must begin a dialogue that addresses the humanitarian crisis on our borders, in our barrios, and at our detention centers. The Department of Homeland Security has cast a huge net around the immigrant community in the hopes of finding suspected terrorists to protect the security of America. So why must so many innocent people, who are not terrorists, suffer? Whose safety is being protected here? What does it mean to be an American? Who is an American?
We need to find an effective way to raise the political consciousness of our community to understand that ultimately, the dismantling of homeland security apparatuses is necessary to addressing our collective problem. For the last 20 years, the immigrant rights movement has focused itself on immigration reform that places pathways to citizenship, access to public services and family unification at the center of its core values. Because the homeland security apparatus affects all people, it is vital that all culturally diverse and multiracial peoples work in alliance and coalition with each other locally, regionally and nationally – despite ethnicity, nationality or race – towards the single objective of justice for our communities.
This is a crisis we are not facing alone – We are all Elvira!