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‘I Have The Right To Be Happy’: The Kids Moving Pope Francis To Press U.S. Lawmakers On Immigration

Sophie Cruz, 5, center, reaches up to wipe a tear from her father’s face Raul Cruz, left, during an interview with Telemundo, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015 in Washington. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ALEX BRANDON
Sophie Cruz, 5, center, reaches up to wipe a tear from her father’s face Raul Cruz, left, during an interview with Telemundo, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015 in Washington. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ALEX BRANDON

The most inspiring moment of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit wasn’t his speech before a joint session of Congress or his speech at the United Nations. That moment is arguably reserved for five-year-old, U.S. citizen Sophie Cruz, who broke through a security metal barricade during a parade with the hope that the pontiff could help prevent her undocumented parents from getting deported.

The pope beckoned for his security guard to allow the girl to “come to me,” leading to an embrace between two children of immigrants, just one day before he admonished congressional leaders that “so many of you are also descended from immigrants” and that “new generations” should not “turn their backs on our ‘neighbors’” — which is telling of how both children and Francis are helping to move the conversation on immigration reform in America.

The interaction with the pontiff provides somewhat of a contrast to the way that congressional lawmakers tend to awkwardly react to children whose parents are in similar circumstances.

Here are some examples of how children like Sophie hope to encourage the pope to make the moral case for immigration reform in the face of congressional inaction:

The girl who spoke on behalf of 3.7 million undocumented immigrants

Sophie Cruz, 5, from suburban Los Angeles, hugs her father Raul Cruz during an interview with the Associated Press. CREDIT: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Sophie Cruz, 5, from suburban Los Angeles, hugs her father Raul Cruz during an interview with the Associated Press. CREDIT: AP Photo/Alex Brandon

When Sophie hugged the pope, she also delivered a letter and a t-shirt reading “Papa Rescate DAPA” (or Pope, Rescue DAPA) — referring to President Barack Obama’s stalled executive action known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, which would have granted deportation relief and work authorization to about 3.7 million undocumented parents of legal U.S. residents or citizens. A Texas judge issued a temporary injunction to block the program from taking action, leaving millions of undocumented immigrants, including Sophie’s parents, still at risk of deportation.

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“I want to tell you that my heart is sad,” Sophie’s letter to the pontiff read in part, as recorded by The Guardian. “I believe I have the right to live with my parents. I have the right to be happy. My dad works very hard in a factory galvanizing pieces of metal.”

It’s unclear whether the judge will lift the temporary injunction on the multi-state lawsuit led by Texas to put the president’s executive action on hold. But Republican lawmakers have already stated that they’re against the current and original executive action called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which granted similar privileges for some undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

The teenagers who walked thousands of miles to flee violence

Members of the South Bronx United soccer team holding a soccer ball that they will present to Pope Francis. CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee
Members of the South Bronx United soccer team holding a soccer ball that they will present to Pope Francis. CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee

During an event at Madison Square Garden on Friday night, Pope Francis will be given a soccer ball signed by teenage members of the South Bronx United soccer program, which aims to connect unaccompanied Central American teenagers who crossed the border with a familiar sport to help them get over the traumatic experiences in their home countries.

At least two soccer team members who will meet the pope told ThinkProgress earlier this month that they left Latin America because of gang violence and immense poverty. Randy, a 19-year-old Honduran, told ThinkProgress that he left his country because “I didn’t have the opportunity to study or live a peaceful life in any way” while Josué, a 16-year-old Salvadoran, said that “soccer makes me happy and it makes me forget about the problems I had in El Salvador.”

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At the height of an immigration crisis last year when 66,115 unaccompanied Latin American children crossed the southwest U.S. border, mostly through Texas, numerous lawmakers called to militarize the border to prevent more migrants from coming into the country. Some lawmakers went so far as to suggest that children carried diseases, even advocating for the expedited deportation of such children, many of whom qualify for humanitarian relief.

The girl who likely saved her father from deportation

Ten year old Jersey Vargas met with the Pope in March to ask him to speak with President Obama about her father’s order of deportation. CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee
Ten year old Jersey Vargas met with the Pope in March to ask him to speak with President Obama about her father’s order of deportation. CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee

Last year, 11-year-old Jersey Vargas met with the pope ahead of his visit with Obama in Rome to stop the deportation proceedings of her father. Jersey’s father Mario served out a six-month prison sentence for a driving under influence charge and was transferred into immigration detention for deportation proceedings.

The pope promised Jersey that he would talk to Obama about immigration reform. And though the contents of the two leaders’ private discussion remained under wraps, it seemed that Francis kept his promise. Soon after Jersey’s landed in Los Angeles after her trip to Rome to meet the pontiff, she found her father waiting to embrace her at the airport.

Jersey told ThinkProgress at the time, “Now that my dad is back, my family is happier than ever. … After we met up at the airport, we went to the park and we went to the movie theaters because we were really happy having him back.” However, her father’s release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody is not permanent and he is still at risk of deportation.

Jersey also traveled to Washington, D.C. for the pope’s visit this week, stating that she hoped Francis could “try to change the hearts of the Republicans for them to give us the immigration reform,” according to an ABC affiliate.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump strongly suggested on Thursday that he would “warmly and humanely” deport undocumented immigrants if elected as president. But such a move could potentially rip apart millions of mixed-immigration status families comprising of at least one undocumented parent and one U.S.-citizen child. A recent Migration Policy Institute study found that between 740,000 and 925,000 immigrant parents of U.S.-born children were deported in the decade spanning 2003 and 2013, leaving behind children at risk for significant negative emotional and behavioral outcomes.

The teenagers who serve food to migrants crossing the border

People on the Mexican side of the international border worship while Cardinal Sean O’Malley leads mass, Tuesday, April 1, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York
People on the Mexican side of the international border worship while Cardinal Sean O’Malley leads mass, Tuesday, April 1, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York

Late last year, Francis personally wrote a letter to teenagers in Arizona who served food to immigrants and invited the Holy Father to visit the border. Along with the Kino Border Initiative, founded by a group of Catholic organizations on the U.S. and Mexico sides of the border, the youths served around 38,000 meals to migrants crossing the border.

“These young people, who have come to learn how to strive against the propagation of stereotypes, from people who only see in immigration a source of illegality, social conflict and violence,” Francis wrote, “can contribute much to show the world a church, without borders, as mother of all; a church that extends to the world the culture of solidarity and care for the people and families that are affected many times by heart-rending circumstances.”

These teenagers likely understand the fear that’s involved for undocumented immigrants living on the border. About two-thirds of the United States population live within a 100-mile wide strip that wraps around the “external boundary” — the national border — of the United States. Within this boundary lies Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where at least 1.7 million undocumented immigrants live, constantly in fear of having to produce identification along the 71 permanent and tactical border checkpoints in the area. Despite the already-secure border with more boots-on-the-ground than ever before, many GOP presidential contenders continue to press for a border “wall that works,” as Carly Fiorina stated during the second GOP presidential debate last week.