An illegal immigrant who stayed in a Chicago church for a year to avoid separation from her 8-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, has been deported to Mexico, the church's pastor said.
Elvira Arellano was arrested Sunday afternoon outside Our Lady Queen of Angels church in Los Angeles. She was deported several hours later, said the Rev. Walter Coleman, pastor of Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago, where Arellano had taken refuge.
"She has been deported. She is free and in Tijuana," said Coleman, who said he spoke to her on the phone. "She is in good spirits. She is ready to continue the struggle against the separation of families from the other side of the border."
A message left with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials late Sunday was not immediately returned.
Arellano, 32, has become a symbol of the struggles of illegal immigrant parents and a source of controversy. She had said Saturday she was not afraid of being taken into custody by immigration agents.
"From the time I took sanctuary the possibility has existed that they arrest me in the place and time they want," she said in Spanish. "I only have two choices. I either go to my country, Mexico, or stay and keep fighting. I decided to stay and fight."
Coleman said Arellano had brought to light her struggle, and for that, "she has won a victory."
Los Angeles area Catholic priest Father Luis Angel Nieto said he learned of Arellano's deportation by speaking by phone with Mexican authorities.
"Tomorrow we are going to start trying to get her back," said Angel, who is a supporter of the New Sanctuary Movement, in which a handful of churches across the country have begun to house illegal immigrants.
"We know that she'll continue the struggle and we will continue the struggle with greater faith, greater steadfastness and greater force," said Catherine Archibald, a parishioner of Coleman's church.
Arellano came to Washington state illegally in 1997. She was deported to Mexico shortly after, but returned and moved to Illinois in 2000, taking a job cleaning planes at O'Hare International Airport.
She was arrested in 2002 at O'Hare and convicted of working under a false Social Security number. She was to surrender to authorities last August.
She sought refuge at the storefront church on Chicago's West Side Aug. 15, 2006. She had not left the church property until deciding to be driven to Los Angeles, Coleman said.
Immigration authorities confirmed the arrest and said in a statement earlier Sunday that Arellano was "being processed for removal to Mexico based upon a deportation order originally issued by a federal immigration judge in 1997."
Immigration activists responded with anger to her arrest, and promised protests and vigils to support her.
"We are sad, but at the same time we are angry," said Javier Rodriguez, a Chicago immigration activist who worked with Arellano. "How dare they arrest this woman?"
Anti-illegal immigrant groups said the arrest was long overdue.
"Just because the woman has gone public and made an issue of the fact that she is defying law doesn't mean the government doesn't have to do its job," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limits on immigration.
Arellano said she was staying in the United States illegally because of her son, Saul, who was born in America. Arellano has repeatedly called for a stop to immigration raids that break up "mixed families," that is families that have some members with legal status and others who are in the country illegally.
Emma Lozano, Coleman's wife and head of immigration rights group Centro Sin Fronteras in Chicago, said she is Saul's legal guardian. At a Sunday afternoon press conference in Los Angeles, the boy hid behind Lozano and wiped away tears.
"He's taking it better than we thought he would," Lozano said of the boy being separated from Arellano.
While being arrested, Lozano said that Arellano spoke briefly with her son before submitting herself to authorities.
"She calmed him down, hugged him and gave him a blessing," said Lozano.