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Son of immigration activist who sought sanctuary in Chicago church to graduate high school

Originally published by Chicago Tribune

Manya Brachear Pashman

Saul Arellano gets a boost every time a stranger recognizes him on the street, pinches his cheeks and calls him “Saulito.” It reminds him of the Chicago community that raised him, and what he owes them and his country.

A decade ago, Saul’s mother, Elvira Arellano, became a lightning rod in the nation’s immigration debate when she sought sanctuary in a Humboldt Park church while fighting her second deportation back to Mexico. Her son, born in the U.S., has joined her as an immigration advocate, serving as a symbol of why so many people live in the U.S. illegally — to find better opportunities for their children.

After his mother was deported in 2007, young Saul — who went to live with her in Mexico — took up her mantle, traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, lobbying for immigration reform. In 2014, Elvira Arellano returned to the U.S. illegally with Saul and his then-infant brother. Crossing the border a third time to secure a brighter future for her sons was worth the risk, she said.

On Friday, Saul Arellano is set to fulfill his mother’s dream of seeing her son graduate from high school. He hopes to attend Northeastern Illinois University in the fall with tuition provided by an unexpected donor. He plans to pursue a career fighting for justice.

“People actually believe in what we’re doing,” said Saul Arellano, now 18. “That’s all I need, just one person who believes that I’m doing something right.”

Saul was born in 1998 in Yakima, Wash., where his mother first went to live and work with her cousins, one year after she was first deported for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Saul came with his mother to Chicago more than two years later. She got a job cleaning at O’Hare International Airport and bought a house. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal agents came to her home at dawn as part of Operation Tarmac, a nationwide sweep of airport employees living in the U.S. illegally.

In addition to re-entering the country illegally after a prior deportation, Elvira Arellano had been working with a fake Social Security number. She fought every turn of her case and won at least three stays of deportation. But in August 2006, instead of showing up at the Department of Homeland Security for removal, she stepped up to the pulpit of Adalberto United Methodist Church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, vowing to stay in the church indefinitely with her son.

The move catapulted the mother and son to the front lines of an international debate. Critics of illegal immigration believed Elvira Arellano was using her son to justify staying in the U.S. and exploiting him by putting him before TV cameras and politicians.

During news conferences, 7-year-old Saul stood at his mother’s side, playing with his action figures. He missed his own bed and the Nintendo game he left behind at their home in Pilsen, he said.

Still, whenever Elvira Arellano proposed giving up and going to Mexico, young Saul said no. He wanted to stay and become a Chicago firefighter. “I want to help people,” he told the Tribune in 2007.

Beti Guevara, the assistant pastor of the church where the Arellanos took refuge, said the year living inside Adalberto robbed Saul of some of his childhood. He lashed out, often kicking and punching anyone who came near his mother. Guevara relied on the nearby Union League Boys & Girls Club as an outlet for his pent-up angst.

“This kid lived in fear,” said Guevara. “The only relief he had was the Boys & Girls Club. I snuck him through the back door and then he became a kid.”

Unlike his mother, Saul could come and go from the church freely. He attended second grade at Cooper Elementary School in Pilsen and went to occasional sleepovers. The child spoke at immigration reform rallies outside the White House, and in Los Angeles, Boston and Miami. He went to Mexico City to address the Mexican parliament, which adopted a resolution opposing the U.S. effort to deport his mother.

In August 2007, a year after taking sanctuary in the church, Elvira Arellano was arrested in Los Angeles, where she and Saul had traveled for an immigration reform rally. Because of her prior deportation and the attention her case had drawn, she was deported that same day. Saul joined her to live in Mexico a month later, after attending a number of other immigration reform rallies around the country.

As the mother and son’s activism continued in Mexico, Elvira Arellano dodged gunfire at rallies, received death threats and locked the doors of her home in Michoacan to prevent kidnappers from taking Saul, she said. Saul’s classmates in the southwestern Mexican state spoke wistfully of life in America, he said. But the hatred he says he has experienced here did not match what they imagined.

In 2014, Elvira Arellano escorted a group of Central American asylum seekers to the U.S. border and encouraged them to cross. She called her then teenage son Saul and suggested he join her in doing the same. They both crossed the border and were detained. As a U.S. citizen, he was released right away. His mother, having crossed the border illegally a third time, was released a few days later pending a ruling on her asylum.

They returned to Humboldt Park where the largely Puerto Rican community had rallied around them years earlier.

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