During his weekly address with the public this week, Pope Francis made a promise to a ten-year-old child that he likely kept. Francis told Jersey Vargas, a U.S. citizen, that he would speak with President Barack Obama (D) about immigration reform during the president’s visit to Rome Thursday. Vargas is one of about 20 immigration advocates who have family members in deportation proceedings traveling to the Vatican. For Vargas, that family member is her father.
In a statement released after Obama’s visit, the Vatican said that the leaders discussed immigration reform, although it’s unclear whether those “issues came up directly with Francis or in a subsequent meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin,” according to the Associated Press. But while President Obama recently committed to review his deportations policy, there’s only so much he alone would, or could do to change the system that is leading to these deportations.
Vargas was able to meet with the Pope after being given a note by Los Angeles Archibishop José Gomez in mid-March that allowed her and other immigration advocates to get close to where Francis would pass by. She quickly presented the Pope with an engraved good luck charm, while other advocates brought more than 1,000 letters written by children of undocumented parents who have either been deported or are in deportation proceedings. According to Fox Latino which spoke with Vargas afterwards, she said, “I told him to pray for my family and to ask the president to stop deportation because it’s separating my family. He blessed me and told me he would bring this up with President Obama.”
Pope Francis has long advocated for migrant rights, even making his first official trip outside Rome to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa to commemorate North African migrants who died trying to get to Europe last July. He said at the time that “a change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization — all typical of a throwaway culture.”
Although immigration advocates hope that the Pope’s message will prod Obama to stop deportations and although the President has associated himself with Francis’ message of inclusion and economic issues recently, it’s unlikely that Obama would, or even could, commit to an executive decision on immigration without tipping the prospects of a permanent solution through Congress. House Republicans have already voted through two bills that purportedly tackle Obama’s executive overreach, and they particularly cited a presidential initiative known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as one of the examples of overreach. They continued that sentiment Wednesday when they voted down a procedural move to bring the House Democrats’ immigration reform bill to a floor vote. As of Thursday, no House Republicans have signed on to a discharge petition that would allow that bill to come up for a “yes-or-no vote” on the House floor. And with the GOP presidential primary starting next year, Republicans are hellbent on claiming that any kind of legalization spells “amnesty,” a tactic that has been used by at least 30 GOP Senate candidates running in the 2014 election.
In the long run, the real obstacle is less President Obama and moreso House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who previously said that he wouldn’t allow a vote on the comprehensive immigration bill without a majority consensus from his party. Even if the Pope were to meet Boehner, who extended a formal invitation formal and open invitation, Boehner’s history of meeting with religious figures has produced less than desirable results for reform. In February, Boehner met with retired Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, an immigration reform proponent, but, on the same day, held a press conference to say that House Republicans couldn’t trust the President to move legislation forward. And a week after Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York wrote a letter calling reform a “moral urgency” last November, the speaker ruled out bringing the Senate bill to the House floor.
Vargas’ father was released from a Louisiana detention facility Friday after he posted $5,000 bond. This will be the first time in two years that the ten year old has seen her father.