How Children Pushing For Immigration Reform Are The Newest Civil Rights Leaders

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Y. Lee

Children of immigrant parents sing the "Happy Birthday" song to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in front of a Capitol Hill office building.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, nearly 200 immigrant youths and family members marched with prominent civil rights leaders as part of national activist efforts to pressure House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to move an immigration reform bill forward. Joining the rally were four civil rights leaders who marched as children during the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, a pivotal civil rights event that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a show of solidarity to the successors of the new civil rights movement, the leaders linked arms with children whose stories of family separation illustrate the suffering caused by the current immigration system.

In a move reminiscent of the 1963 Children’s Crusade, the youth members of the pro-reform coalition Fair Immigration Reform Movement’s ‘Keeping Families Together: Youth in Action’ marched as a way to pressure Congressional action on reform. The Crusade occurred at a time when desegregation efforts were waning; on Wednesday, Boehner said that the House would not go to conference with the approved Senate bill while others pitched the goal post to 2014.

Sixteen year old Jennifer Martinez, one of two teens who confronted Boehner on reform at Pete’s Diner on Wednesday, was present at the rally. Boehner told her that he would act on reform over breakfast, and yet only mere hours later publicly made an about-face.

“I didn’t come all the way from Washington to be lied to. He could have saved me the trouble,” Jennifer said. “I would have preferred honesty. He told us one thing and then hours later, he says another.”

Jake, 9, is a U.S. citizen who hopes to serve in the military one day. At the age of five, his father was deported to El Salvador, a country he hadn’t seen in 15 years. Jake still can’t shake the image of his father being detained by “guys that surrounded him and put him in a black truck.”

Erica Analco, 12, was seven years old when her father was deported back to Mexico. He was “assassinated soon afterwards,” presumably by drug cartel members. She fears that she and her younger brother will be placed in foster care if their undocumented mother is deported.

Wendy, 13, is only now able to go to bed at night without being afraid that her parents may get deported. Her U.S. citizen older brother petitioned for them and they were approved two months ago. Wendy wants Congress to know that “millions of families are being separated and it’s not fair because it’s Congress’ job to … benefit this country and [deportations] aren’t benefiting this country.”

Erica wants Boehner to act on reform now because “I doubt that he’d like to be without his family. And if he hasn’t experienced that … because he’s documented, I don’t think he’d like to hear that he couldn’t do things without his family.”

The children vow that they will not stay quiet.

Wendy thinks that having the support of the civil rights leaders is “inspirational” because “seeing what they had to go through is somewhat similar to what we have to go through and they just inspire us to keep on going.”

Jennifer refuses to quit “being persistent” in her rally for immigration reform, “there is that anxiety, there is that fear, there is no room for comfort zones in this … It’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let that hinder you from what you have to do.”

Even freshman House Democrats, have not stayed quiet. Fifteen House Democrats convened on Tuesday to lambast House Republicans for their inaction on reform. During a phone interview, Rep. Steve Horsford (D-NV) commended Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) for publicly announcing his frustration with House Republican leadership. But Horsford hopes that Heck would do more, “I’m hopeful that his words and support in comprehensive immigration reform will turn to action by signing on as a cosponsor to HR 15.”

Even so, the tipping point that helped the Children’s Crusade turn the national narrative came when then-head police Bull Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs on nonviolent black youth marchers. The end result then was President Johnson signing a law into place that would slowly bring about social equality. Whether present day deportation stories by children will successfully compel House Republican leadership remains to be seen.