Monday, February 3, 2014

12 Million Shadows in Limbo

Elvira Arellano/Chicago Reader
Chicago, IL.- On November 15, 2006, Elvira Arellano became a fugitive of U.S. authorities. She was due to leave the country after being arrested at O'Hare airport by immigration officials, where she worked cleaning airplanes for $6.20 an hour. She was working and paying taxes under a fake Social Security number.

To avoid deportation, Arellano, an undocumented migrant from Mexico, took her 7-year-old son, Saul, a U.S. national to Adalberto United Methodist Church, in Humboldt Park, and made the church their sanctuary. They've been refuged there ever since.

In spite of her limbo status, Arellano has managed to advocate for the legalization of undocumented immigrants through peaceful demonstrations with the help of organizations such as Centro Sin Fronteras. "We're fighting for a just cause," Arellano said. "This government has allowed us to work and they accept our taxes. They want us to be modern slaves. If I have to go, then I will do it. But I won't leave without a fight."

There are 12 million undocumented migrants like Arellano, and they make up 4.9 percent of the civilian labor force according to Pew Hispanic Center statistics. Nationwide, they comprise 24 percent of all farm workers, 14 percent of the construction force and 12  percent of the hospitality sector. About a quarter of all dishwashers and meat and poultry workers in the country are also undocumented migrants. Debates to design and implement fair and effective policies to control and regulate the influx of immigrants are currently at the heart of U.S. politics. What to do with the 12 million already here without documents is the thorniest part of the issue.

Uptown is one of 13 ports of entry for immigrants in Chicago that are in Truman College's service area.The school provides these communities with adult literacy and GED classes, but mainly, it provides ESL (English as a second language) programs. These vicinities include Rogers Park, West Ridge, Uptown, Lincoln Square, North Center, North Park, Albany Park, Portage Park and Edgewater. Their total combined population according to Truman statistics is around 740,000.

Last decade (1990-2000), new immigrants came to these neighborhoods at a much higher rate than to the rest of the City of Chicago as a whole, according to Truman statistics. They had an input of 140,000 new entries (an increase of 18.86 percent in population during this period, while the whole city had 291,785 arrivals (an increase of 10.08 percent). Chicago's population in 2000 was 2,896,016, according to the U.S. census.

"Everyone who is here illegally needs to be deported," said Rick Biesada, director of the Chicago Minutemen Project, a group that stages anti-immigrant protests, mainly along the border. The Minutemen's Web site ( says that Latino activists are "virtually salivating" at the prospect of imminent amnesty, now that the majority of U.S. citizens favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Norma Angelica Bucholtz is a Truman photography student and has been in the United states for 12 years. The 38-year-old says that illegal immigration is something hard to avoid because there aren't any good trade policies between Mexico and the United States.

"When NAFTA (The North America Free Trade Agreement) came into effect in 1994, we (Mexicans) thought that the borders were going to be more open. We believed that people were going to move easily between the two countries."

Bucholtz added that in Mexico many foreign companies have been given excellent opportunities to succeed. However, these companies pay very low wages, "and living on minimum wage is impossible there." 

Bucholtz, who's also a U.S. citizen, things that politician s are scared to pass a comprehensive immigration reform and that they are giving the debate the run-around. "They're afraid they may find out that we have more than 12 million people living undocumented."

Truman College is the largest provider of ESL classes in Illinois. In 2006, 14,000 students were enrolled in its Adult Education department. According to school officials, about 85 percent of them are ESL students.

"We accept all immigrants from all over the world," said Armando Mata, Truman's Dean of Adult Education. "We're not immigration [police] here," he added. "We love working with new residents. They're the best."

Biesada says that what's needed to deal with the undocumented population is enforcement alone, not new legislation. He thinks that the Senate and House members who are proposing immigration bills that include a path to citizenship are committing anarchy. He thinks they're just pulling a stalling tactic. "They're making it hopeful for these illegal aliens. But in the end, they have no intentions of passing new legislation."

Biesada thinks that undocumented migrants use health care and social services at a higher rate than legal residents and citizens. However, that claim could be argued. "Health Affairs," a leading journal of health policy, found that even though the undocumented constituted 12 percent of the non-elderly adult population of Los Angeles County in 2006, they accounted for only six percent of health spending.

And many undocumented migrants pay taxes too. In 1996, the IRS created a nine-digit number for taxpayers who didn't qualify for a Social Security number. The individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) starts with "9," and by 2003 the agency had issued 11 million of them.

The number of ITIN cards that went to undocumented residents is unknown, but by 2003, the IRS had received close to one million tax returns using their numbers.

The card is now being widely accepted at banks, where immigrants can apply for a checking account or a mortgage loan. Joint research by the Illinois Immigrant Policy Project and the Urban Institute found that undocumented workers in our state pay about $547 million in taxes yearly, but use only $238 million in services.

While members of the Senate and the House of Representatives figure out a way to regulate immigration, Arellano and her son wait in Adalberto Church.

She entered the country originally in 1997, but was deported right away. With the help of a smuggler, she returned and lived in Oregon for three years. She found work washing clothes and babysitting. In 1999, she gave birth to Saul, "Saulito," on U.S. soil.

They moved to Chicago in 2002 and Arellano found work at O'Hare Airport. She was arrested there during a post 9-11 security sweep, and sentenced to three years probation.

On August 15, 2006, Arellano was supposed to appear before immigration authorities, but she didn't go. She took refuge in Adalberto Church instead.

When asked whether Saulito ever talks about their ordeal, Arellano replied: "We are always talking about the possibility that I may be deported. But if I do, he won't leave the country. I think that he would have a better future staying, and that is his right because he was born here."

This story was originally written in 2007 for the Uptown Exchange, where I was News Editor at the time. It won the first place in the awards for excellence  competition held by the Illinois Community Colleges Association of Journalism. I wanted to include it in my blog so it can be read by more people, and to write it in Spanish.      

It's been seven years since I met Elvira Arellano at Adalberto Church. Unfortunately, just a few months later Arellano was arrested outside Our Lady Queen of Angels church in Los Angeles, and was deported right away. 

But the immigration debate continues. There has been no reform, and there are now an estimated 11 million shadows in limbo. The Great Recession and more opportunities in México are believed to be the main reasons why their numbers  have decreased.

I hope that some day Arellano comes back to the United States with Saulito, if that's what she still wishes to do. She is a brave woman for bringing the immigration debate to the forefront in the face of adversity. It was a pleasure meeting her here in Chicago, and I hope to see her again sometime.

Link to Spanish version/Enlace a historia en español. 

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