Page last updated at 10:58 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 11:58 UK

Immigrant tells of hard choices

By Emilio San Pedro
BBC News, Chicago

Flor Crisostomo's story echoes that of many of the millions of Latin Americans who, faced with dim economic prospects, opt to leave everything and everyone they know back home to seek a better life in the United States.

Flor Crisostomo
Flor says she had no choice but to leave her home to find work

Flor, an indigenous woman from Mexico, is among the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, the majority of them Mexican, currently in the US.

But having sought sanctuary in a Chicago church to evade capture, Flor is now also one of the figureheads of the campaign to get the US government to push through a comprehensive immigration reform to grant legal status to many illegal immigrants in the country.

Flor, 29, came to the US more than seven years ago, leaving behind three young children, two boys and a girl, who are looked after by her mother.

Their family's small farming business had been ruined by the North American Free Trade Agreement, Nafta, Flor says.

"It's the existing economic and free trade policies like Nafta which are forcing so many of us from our homes," says Flor from inside the Chicago Protestant church where she has been living for nearly three months.


Her decision to follow in the footsteps of her fellow countrywoman, Elvira Arellano, and challenge a deportation order by seeking sanctuary inside the Adalberto United Methodist Church in the heart of the predominantly Latino Humboldt Park neighbourhood, has turned Flor into a key figure of the pro-immigrant campaign in America.

Started on 1 Jan 1994, full implementation 1 Jan 2008
Allows free trade between US, Canada and Mexico
Side agreements regulate environment, labour
Critics say 1m US manufacturing jobs have been lost
End to import tariffs on key staples provoked protests in Mexico in January

Elvira Arellano was arrested in Los Angeles and deported to Mexico last year after having spent a year inside the church.

Like her, Flor sees her situation as one of political activism and militancy against what she considers the unjust immigration system in the US.

Her days are spent mobilising pro-immigrant groups and helping them organise demonstrations in the Chicago area and throughout the country.

She also has a hectic daily round of face-to-face and telephone interviews with the US and international media.

The campaign she is spearheading - called To Make America See - is aimed at demonstrating to Americans her view that immigrants like her were left no other choice but to emigrate to the US.

Flor's tone gets harsher as she takes direct aim at Washington's economic policies in Latin America.

"Why is the US so determined to promote projects like Nafta which only benefits its people without any concern for what impact those projects have on the people in countries like Mexico?" she asks.


She says Nafta prompted a flood of subsidised US agricultural products into Mexico which she says wrecked her mother's small farming business and that of hundreds of thousands of other poor indigenous people.

"There was simply no way that our poorly funded and equipped farming industry in Mexico could compete with the highly subsidised and technologically superior American multinationals."

That disparity, she says, left millions like her without a livelihood. It is the cause, she says, of what the US calls illegal immigration but which she provocatively describes as the "forced displacement" of millions.

"This forced displacement," says Flor, "is a direct result of Nafta. And the American people need to understand that millions of us were forced to abandon our homes. We came here through no choice of our own and didn't just wantonly decide to abandon our families and our traditions.

Section of border fence along the US-Mexico border
Immigration is a key issue in this year's US election

"As long as our people are going hungry, as long as our children are going hungry this kind of migration will continue," Flor says.

"I would like to challenge the authorities here to point out exactly which immigration clauses I violated when I came here through no choice of my own because my children were literally dying of hunger," she says.

As for the American Immigration and Customs Enforcement department, ICE, its position is just as clear.

In a statement issued shortly after her decision to seek sanctuary inside the Chicago church rather than heed a voluntary deportation order, the ICE said that Flor was now an immigration fugitive who would be arrested at the appropriate time.

Flor says she will be prepared to accept such a detention when the moment comes but warns the US authorities that they could have as much to lose or more in the eyes of millions by arresting her.

"I think they're the ones who are probably more afraid of how it would look to the entire world that they decided to knock down the doors of a peaceful neighbourhood church to arrest and remove a defenceless woman like myself from the premises," she concludes.

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