Elvira Arellano at the Union Park rally in March 2006
Elvira Arellano at the Union Park rally in March 2006

Video maker Esaú Meléndez had been documenting the local immigration reform movement for six months already when his real story emerged: on August 15, 2006, the Mexican activist and undocumented worker Elvira Arellano announced that she would defy a deportation order from the Department of Homeland Security and take sanctuary inside the Adalberto United Methodist Church in Humboldt Park.

The previous December, the U.S. House of Representatives had passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act. Sponsored by Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, it called for the construction of a 700-mile fence on the Mexican border, required that local police turn over to federal immigration officials any undocumented immigrants in their custody, and increased criminal penalties for providing aid to the undocumented.

Spanish-language radio, labor unions, and churches had succeeded in mobilizing immigrant communities against the bill, and the tremendous scale of the movement had become clear here in Chicago, with a giant rally in Union Park on March 10, 2006. Meléndez had recorded that protest, which drew at least 100,000 immigrants and their supporters, and he continued documenting the movement in Chicago as demonstrations continued across the country, culminating in a nationwide day of protest on May 1. Though he works for Channel 20, this was a project of his own undertaking. “As a filmmaker from the community I took the opportunity to tell the story,” he says.

Elvira Arellano had been one of the organizers of the Union Park protest, and when she holed up at Adalberto United Methodist, her compatriots invited Meléndez to the press conference. She called for Congress to halt any further deportations until the system could be reformed to allow undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and prevent undocumented parents from being separated from their U.S.-born children. Less than two weeks later, President Bush authorized the border fence by signing into law the Secure Fence Act of 2006. (The remaining provisions of the Sensenbrenner bill died in committee.)

At first, says Meléndez, Arellano and her advisers didn’t take him seriously. “I was just one guy with a video camera,” he says. But when the news trucks packed up and left, he stuck around, recording events inside the church as Arellano became an international symbol of the immigration debate, and eventually followed her to Mexico. The resulting documentary, Immigrant Nation! The Battle for the Dream, will make its Chicago premiere as part of the 26th Chicago Latino Film Festival (see movie listings for more on the fest, which runs through 4/29).

Meléndez, 34, grew up in Mexico City and immigrated to Chicago with his family in 1990. He studied film at Columbia College from 1996 to 1999, then dropped out to shoot and edit concerts and soccer games for a promotional company. After three years as a freelance videographer and editor for Telemundo, he got the staff job at Channel 20.

Arellano is also 34, but she entered the U.S. illegally, in 1997. That same year she was deported, but she managed to return to the U.S. and in 1999 gave birth to a son, Saul, in Oregon. (She has never publicly identified the father.) Three years later Arellano was working at O’Hare, cleaning planes for a janitorial contractor, when she was arrested as part of Operation Tarmac, an airport security sweep launched by the Justice Department in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Caught using a fake social security number, Arellano was given another deportation order. She appealed to the Mexican consulate but says in the documentary that the consulate told her it could do nothing. Her appeal was denied, but her deportation was delayed until 2006 by private bills (which apply to a specific individual) introduced in the U.S. Senate by Dick Durbin and in the House of Representatives by Luis Gutierrez and Bobby Rush.

Meléndez continued to follow the larger movement as well as Arellano’s story. The month after she took refuge at the church, he and his crew videotaped some 250 demonstrators on a four-day march from Chinatown to the western suburb of Batavia, where about 2,000 people protested outside the office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert. “Go home—Mexico is west,” shouts one heckler in Meléndez’s video. Another holds a placard that reads “Take their children away—put them with DCFS.”

Immigrant advocates increasingly focused on the 2006 midterm elections, hoping a Democratic majority in Congress would lead to more immigrant-friendly legislation. Meléndez accompanied them on election night as they went door to door trying to get out the vote. “If the Democrats win, I can stay here to fight to legalize everyone,” declares Arellano. Meléndez captured the activists’ elation as the Democrats won control of the House and Senate. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latino support for Democratic candidates increased from 58 percent in 2004 to 69 percent in 2006.

In August 2007, after a year at the church, Arellano left to travel to California and lobby Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, and Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House judiciary committee’s immigration subcommittee. Arellano and her son were sitting in a car outside a Los Angeles church when they were surrounded by 15 immigration agents with weapons drawn. They arrested Arellano, who left the boy with a friend who was in the car.

Meléndez joined Arellano in Tijuana the day after her deportation and recorded her phone call with eight-year-old Saul, who told her he wanted to stay in the States. The boy had gotten a look at Mexico and its poverty when he’d addressed the Mexican Congress earlier that year, and according to Meléndez, he didn’t want to return. Meléndez then followed Arellano to Maravatio, Michoacan, where the activist was reunited with her parents after more than a decade. “I told her to come here before, but she’s hard-headed,” Arellano’s father says in the documentary. “She wants to fight. How can you fight there, being undocumented? Why fight? We told her not to do that because somebody can hurt her.”

That same August, Saul joined Arellano in Maravatio. She opened a center to support migrants separated from their families by deportation, and she addressed the Mexican Congress to ask for a resolution supporting U.S. immigration reform. “Immigration is one of the only things that unites the three parties in Mexico,” Meléndez explains in the documentary. The resolution passed, but not without some cynicism: as Mexican congressman Raymundo Cardenas says in the documentary, “The United States doesn’t care what this congress has to say.”

In 2009 Arellano campaigned unsuccessfully for the Mexican Congress herself, on a platform to support the rights of Central American migrants in Mexico “I am going to seek laws in Congress that protect women, and also that protect undocumented Central Americans who are treated like criminals in Mexico,” Arellano told the news site Frontera NorteSur last May.

In December, Luis Gutierrez introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform ASAP Act, which would let undocumented immigrants apply for legal residency while remaining in the U.S. It’s still in committee. “From my experience, it’s going to be difficult to get [immigration reform] passed,” Meléndez says. “Hopefully Obama can get it passed before the next election, because if he doesn’t he’s going to lose the Latino vote, and risk not being reelected.”