On the screen of her pink iPhone, Zoyla Cruz watched her young daughter ogle the desserts being served Thursday at the White House celebration of Cinco de Mayo.
Six-year-old Sophie — known around the world for darting past security to reach Pope Francis last fall — was invited to the event as a “champion of immigration reform,” the White House said. Her parents, two of this country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, were not permitted to accompany her because of their immigration status.
So while Sophie squealed in delight about the performance of the Mexican rock band Maná at the presidential mansion, her parents waited for her at a restaurant a block away.
“It breaks my heart,” Zoyla Cruz said in Spanish, teary at missing her little girl’s latest moment in the spotlight. “I’m dying. Imagine all those families separated by deportation.”
Zoyla and Raul Cruz crossed the border from Mexico a decade ago in search of economic opportunity. He works in a Los Angeles factory; she was a retail cashier before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Because of Sophie, who was born in California, and 2-year-old Sahara, they would probably qualify for deportation relief under a program proposed by President Obama that is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In his remarks at the Cinco de Mayo event, Obama called his inability to push immigration reform through Congress “one of the most frustrating aspects of my presidency.”
He vowed “to keep on working on this not just as president, but as a citizen — once I’m leaving here — because I think it’s one of the most important things we can get done.”
Last fall, Sophie, then 5, presented a plea for immigration reform to Pope Francis when his motorcade stopped on Constitution Avenue NW. Cameras from around the world captured images of security officers hoisting the little girl up to hug the pontiff, instantly making her one of the most visible faces of the movement.
Raul Cruz said his daughter was motivated to speak out because she fears that her parents could be deported. “She understands the reality of what could happen to us,” he said.
Precocious from birth, according to her parents, Sophie recites poetry, skipped kindergarten and reads at two levels above her grade. She explains to her parents, who speak little English, what she learns.
“She was telling me the other day that she was so surprised to learn that [President] Lincoln did not die [naturally] but was killed when he went to the theater,” Zoyla Cruz said in Spanish. “She explains these things to me.”
When Sophie starting asking to visit her grandfather in Mexico, it was her parents’ turn to explain — that they could not bring her across the border, because they were in the United States illegally and would not be able to come back easily.
The Cruzes said their daughter wanted to find a solution. When there wasn’t a clear one, the girl suggested they fight.
“She is incredible,” Raul Cruz said. “She leaves us speechless sometimes.”
Sophie also performs folk dances that reflect her Mexican heritage. By last year, her dancing and eloquence had drawn the attention of the advocacy group La Hermandad Mexicana Transnacional, whose leaders thought she would be an effective advocate for Obama’s proposals to shield from deportation illegal immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens.
The organization brought Sophie to Washington for the pope’s visit.Her dad came along, paying his own way.
The encounter with the pontiff sparked criticism from people who said Sophie had been coached and was being exploited. But Sophie’s defenders, including her parents, say she has always had a mind of her own and that much of what happened was of her own making.
La Hermandad Mexicana Transnacional had talked about finding a way for Sophie to grab the pope’s attention, as the group had done in Rome with another girl, Jersey Vargas. But Sophie’s action was spontaneous, said Gloria Saucedo, director of the group.
After presenting her letter to Francis, Sophie sent a similar missive to Obama. In return, she received a letter from the president with a photo of the first family. Ever since, her parents said, she has dreamed of visiting the White House.
“Her mind is very powerful, and her imagination is amazing,” Raul Cruz said. “She fights for her dreams.”
Sophie returned to Washington with her mother last month to witness Supreme Court arguments in United States v. Texas, a case that will determine the constitutionality of Obama’s deportation-relief proposals.
Her latest visit to the nation’s capital began shortly after midnight, when the family landed at Dulles International Airport. Sophie wore a glittery “America” T-shirt
Just before 2 p.m., the family joined the White House visitors line on 15th Street NW, wearing traditional Oaxacan clothing.Sophie and Sahara played hand games and chattered while their father took pictures.
As the line began to move closer to the barrier where a Secret Service officer stood, the family said goodbye.
Sophie kissed her father and sister and made the symbol of a cross on her mother’s face as a blessing. She held the hands of filmmaker Paola Mendoza and Alida Garcia of the advocacy organization, FWD.us, who would accompany her inside.
More than three hours passed before Sophie reemerged, running to her mother for a hug. Her escorts had brought out a few empanadas, wrapped in White House napkins.
“I saw the president!” Sophie said. “He gave me his autograph.”