The Deportation of Elvira Arellano

The deportation of immigrant rights activist Elvira Arellano by federal authorities on August 20 was a blow aimed at the immigrant rights movement.  Arellano, a 32-year old single mother who had spent a year living in a Chicago church in defiance of a deportation order, had become a spokesperson for the New Sanctuary Movement and a symbol of resistance for the broader immigrant rights movement.  The New Sanctuary Movement has focused on the defense of families like Arellano’s broken apart by immigration law and immigration authorities.

Arellano had traveled with her eight-year old son Saúl to Los Angeles to promote the immigrant rights movement and raise its visibility.  Federal authorities arrested and deported her; her son, born in the U.S. and therefore a citizen, was not deported.

The federal authorities claim that they deported Arellano for entering the country illegally in 1997, because of a 2002 conviction for a felony (the use of a false Social Security card), and because she was a fugitive.  While those are the pretexts, the motive behind Arellano’s deportation was surely to break the immigrant movement’s spirit and thereby keep immigrants from standing up for their rights.

Setback or Catalyst?

The question facing the immigration rights movement is: Will her arrest become another setback, or will it revitalize the movement?  The answer lies with both immigrants and their allies, but it will depend upon a strategic vision of the way forward for the movement.

Since the massive immigrant demonstrations of 2006, which became virtual general strikes in some cities, the movement has been in retreat.  The defeat of all attempts at immigration reform in Congress and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff’s announcement that there would be a new round of repression, raids, and deportations have put the movement on the defensive.

The New Sanctuary Movement, based in Catholic and Protestant churches and some Jewish temples, has called on all the Americans to “accompany and protect immigrant families who are facing the violation of their human rights in the form of hatred, workplace discrimination, and unjust deportation.”

The heart of the immigrant rights movement, however, must be found in immigrants themselves.  The immigrant movement must be rebuilt locally, at the grassroots level.  Joined by allies from the churches and the labor movement, immigrants and their allies will have to retake the terrain lost to conservatives during the debate over immigration reform last year.

That terrain was lost over the last few years largely because immigrant rights advocates allowed the debate to be confined to federal legislation.  Today, in the era of the globalization of both economics and politics, an ideological debate can never be won solely on the basis of national policy.

Immigration has its roots in foreign policy, in trade agreements, and military intervention.  While recognizing the importance of immigrant rights here in the U.S., activists must work against the trade agreements and foreign policies that have displaced millions of people and led to massive immigration to the U.S.

A Question for Unions

Within the U.S., it will be critical to shift the debate to one about building social solidarity among working people.  Not immigrants, but corporations and the government are responsible for economic policies that have cost American workers jobs, wages, and benefits.  American-born workers need to join with immigrants to defeat those policies.

For the labor movement, the defense of Elvira Arellano becomes a question of its survival and its future.  If the labor movement wants to grow in power it has to rally to the defense of immigrants here while it forms alliances with foreign unions and workers abroad.

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Dan La Botz Dan La Botz is a Cincinnati-based teacher, writer, and activist.  He is the author of Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union (1990), Mask of Democracy: Labor Suppression in Mexico Today (1992), and Democracy in Mexico: Peasant Rebellion and Political Reform (1995), Made in Indonesia: Indonesian Workers Since Suharto (2001) and the editor of Mexican Labor News & Analysis, a monthly collaboration of the Mexico City-based Authentic Labor Front (FAT), the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers (UE), and the Resource Center of the Americas.  His writing has also appeared in Against the Current, Labor Notes, and Monthly Review among other publications.

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