Saul Arellano sat in the National City home of family friends and waited for his mother to call. He had been waiting for this call for seven years.
The lanky dark-haired 15- year-old had been moving back and forth between Mexico and the United States since 2006 when his mother, Elvira Arellano, was deported. Saul, born in the United States, had citizenship; his mother did not.
She avoided deportation by claiming sanctuary in a Chicago church, saying she should not have to choose between taking her son to Mexico and leaving him in the United States alone.
The two of them lived together in the tiny cramped quarters of Adaberto United Methodist Church church for a year while a furor about sanctuary and immigration reform raged around them.
Eventually, Elvira Arellano left the church and was arrested during a march for immigration reform in Los Angeles.
“We were deported when I was 8 years old,” he said. “We were living in Maravatio, Michoacan... I’ve come to vacations in Chicago. I come every vacation.”
The case of the Arellanos sparked a national discussion about families with mixed documentation status, and how deportation law in the United States can tear them apart. Arellano’s lonely protest against immigration policy became famous, then infamous.
Soon the single mother and her quiet son cooking dinner together in a tiny church kitchen became symbols to people on all sides of the immigration debate and sparked the New Sanctuary Movement, in which churches and congregations of all faiths offer aid and shelter for undocumented immigrants in danger of deportation.
This month, Arellano and her other son, 4-month-old Emiliano, traveled from Michoacan to Tijuana to participate in a mass demonstration. About 150 people who had already been deported applied for asylum and humanitarian parole in the United States as part of coordinated effort to protest current immigration policy. The protest took place over several days, on both sides of the Otay Mesa international border.
“I’m here to support the DREAMers,” she said in Tijuana earlier in the week, referring to people who were brought to the United States with their families as infants or young children and who have grown up in the United States without documentation, but who consider themselves American.
“President Obama was supposed to be a champion of immigration reform, but instead he’s a champion of raids and deportations and separating families.” Two million people have been deported during his administration, she said.
Since Saul had been born in the United States, he was able to return and so he did, always in the care of Emma Lozano, one of the church’s pastors. It was at Lozano’s friend’s home that he sat waiting to hear what the outcome of his mother’s attempt to cross would be.
The phone rang and Lozano picked it up. Elvira Arellano and baby Emiliano had been processed by federal authorities and were in the United States on humanitarian parole, pending a ruling in a few months by an immigration judge.
Friends and family rushed to the federal building to meet the people who had been let through. They exchanged hugs and kisses and shed happy tears.
“She’s going to be on parole, and she’s going to be here until her case is resolved,” said Saul. “I feel happy, and really excited to go back home.” Home is Chicago, where he, his mother and brother will finally be able to live — for the time being, at least —without fear of being separated.