“Elvira: The Immigration Play”: A powerful reminder of how detentions and deportations affect immigrant families in the US

Written by Khatia Mikadze



Credit: Si Se PuedeProductions, LLC, and “Elvira: The Immigration Play”


Two weeks ago I saw a performance of “Elvira: The Immigration Play” at the charming Teatro LATEA in the Lower East Side, as part of  the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival. Art has always been a powerful, transformative tool to challenge public discourse and stereotypes, and this play is another reaffirmation of how art can impart both emotions and meanings. The play Elvira challenges anti-immigration opinions, and especially the belief that there is nothing wrong with our immigration policies. This is a must-see in the wake of Donald Trump’s shameful comments about Mexican immigrants and Jeb Bush’s remarks on “anchor babies.”

The play Elvira unfolds in an interrogation room of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), where an immigrant woman named Elvira (played by Jennica Carmona) is about to be deported back to Mexico and separated from her only child, Saul, who is a US citizen. While questioned by an ICE officer (played by Joe Loper), Elvira takes spectators on a journey into her personal story from her childhood in Mexico to her decision to cross the border, and finally her immigrant life in the US. We see her family struggle as the result of the loss of its farm, taken over by international corporations; the properties of other families in the village suffer the same fate. With little economic opportunities left, Elvira decides to leave Mexico and join her siblings in the US, despite her parents’ wishes. She crosses the border with a group of undocumented immigrants, led by a coyote a dangerous voyage, let alone for a single woman. But eventually, she reaches the US, where her real journey begins. Two years after she settles in Oregon, she gives birth to a boy, Saul, whose father remains unnamed. As a single mother, Elvira shows us how hard she has worked and how much discrimination and abuse she has faced to support her son and fight for a better life.


This play is based on the true story of Elvira Arellano,  considered as a symbol  of the many undocumented immigrant women who put their lives in danger to come to the US in search for a better life. In 2006 Elvira was ordered to be deported to Mexico for living illegally in the US. She managed to evade the deportation order and found  shelter with her son in the Adalberto United Methodist Church, one of the sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants in Chicago. In 2007, she was arrested again and forcefully deported back to Mexico, which is the event portrayed by the play.

While Elvira hasn’t been able to return to the US and still lives today in Mexico, she has become an important voice for the 600,000 Mexican mothers separated from their children,  and this even after she reunited with her son in Mexico. In 2000 she established the organization Centro Sin Fronteras / Familia Latina Unida to continue her advocacy and to support families divided by mass deportations in the US, and Central American immigrants detained or affected by the violence in Mexico. She has become a “heroin for immigration activists” in the US, as described by KPBS, a San Diego-based online news outlet.

Elvira’s story depicts just a fragment of a much larger reality. Families of undocumented immigrants in the US get separated every day, every hour. According to this 2012 report published by the Center for American Progress, the number of immigrants forcefully removed from the US has steadily risen, from close to 190,000 deportations in 2001 to nearly 400,000 annually over the past four years. In the first six months of 2011 alone, more than 46,000 parents of US citizen children were deported. The same report indicates that a total of 16.6 million people currently live in mixed-status families, with at least one unauthorized immigrant.  Being the parent or even primary provider of  US citizen children doesn’t seem to have any positive effect on the outcome of removal proceedings: This report of the NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic found that between 2005 and 2010, 87 percent of processed cases in New York City of individuals with US citizen children resulted in deportation.

Immigration detentions are not only splitting families and communities apart, but they also contribute to a growing number of single mothers among immigrant families. Men are more likely to be detained than women, placing additional economic and emotional stress on mothers who must assume the role of breadwinner for the entire family. Abraham Paulos, Executive Director of Families for Freedom, said that while assisting families and children affected by detention or deportation, he noticed that after a family member was detained (in most cases a male breadwinner), “a game of survival” started. He has seen many mothers and children struggling to make ends meet and moving to shelters temporarily or out of New York City to find a more affordable place to live.

“It’s wrong to split up families. I’m fighting for my son, not for myself (…) I am a mom and a worker. I am not a terrorist.”   Elvira Arellano


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