Sophie Cruz hugged the pope on Wednesday. It was an act of political speech.
Well, actually after what the Associated Press described as a year of planning, Sophie's father lifted the 5-year-old over the barricades lining the pope's parade route near the White House. Then, Sophie somehow slipped past the Secret Service long enough to move a few feet down Constitution Avenue and attract the pope's attention. Pope Francis, in turn, signaled for his popemobile to stop and the child to come over. A Vatican guard lifted Sophie up, allowing her to wrap her arm around the pontiff's neck and give it a little squeeze.
Then, feet planted firmly back on the ground, the Los Angeleno seemed to remember something and handed up a letter, a drawing and yellow T-shirt bearing the words, "Papa Rescate DAPA (Pope, Rescue DAPA)."
But what made the moment worth noting for the rest of us is why the 5-year-old was so determined. That's because Sophie came bearing more than a kindergartner's hugs and kisses.
She came with a whole host of politics and messages she wanted to share with the pope. The gist: I am the child of undocumented immigrants who lives in fear that my parents will be detained and deported. I need you, the pope, to advocate to Congress and the president on my behalf. Specifically, please help to resuscitate the program known as DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents) that would have offered some undocumented immigrants protection from sudden deportation. This, according to Sophie's father, is something that she and too many other children fear, daily.
In fact, at just 5 years old, Sophie is a foot soldier committed to a sometimes-risky but deeply American protest tactic: Telling your story. Confront the world with your injustice or indignity, the fear and the pain created by some bit of American public policy or inaction, and rouse others to your cause.
In a country where people are free to express themselves politically and where entire industries exist to help people do so, it's easy to miss just how evocative and effective Sophie's approach -- or that of the immigrant advocacy organization behind her trip to Washington, D.C., -- can be.
"Tactically really, it's one of those moves that is just brilliant," said Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard University sociologist who has spent the better part of the last 23 years researching immigration in the United States. "For anyone who happened to have seen that moment [Wednesday] or in the news coverage since, it's very hard to look into the eyes of a little girl like Sophie and deny that these issues are real and affect human beings."
The DAPA program, crafted by the Department of Homeland Security after a presidential executive order, was halted prior to implementation earlier this year when a group of 26 states, led by Republican elected officials in Texas, filed suit in federal court. In February, the group won a temporary injunction against the program and, in May, a second order from a federal appeals court sustaining that hold. A second, related program protecting undocumented young adults brought to the country as children was allowed to stand.
The decision amounted to a political victory for Republican officials in Congress who have objected to what they view as Obama's habit of constitutional overreach and executive-order-fueled workarounds on matters of substantive disagreement between two of the three branches of government. But those same decisions were regarded as a real blow by a variety of immigrant advocacy and child welfare organizations who had lobbied the president for years to take such action.
In 2011, a report by the racial justice-centered think tank Race Forward (then known as the Applied Research Center) found that at least 5,100 children were in foster care because one or more of their parents had been detained or deported by the U.S. government. The report also projected that, if current deportation patterns continued, that figure would grow to at least 15,000 children by 2016. As such, parent deportations have also become an issue of concern for national and international NGOs such as the Women's Refugee Commission and immigrant rights groups such as the Los Angeles-based group that helped Sophie and her family get to Washington, La Hermandad Mexican National.
La Hermandad might have provided the seed capital, but Sophie's quick moves and her preparation to tell her story -- had she the chance -- is actually part of a larger set of tactics that immigrant rights groups have already deployed to great effect. Listen to some of the young people who benefited from that second program the court allowed to stand -- Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) -- and they will say that the willingness to "out" themselves and members of their families to shine public light on their plight was the beginning of not only their personal investment in the cause, but ranks among the key reasons that the DACA program exists today.
Without their personal stories, the word "DREAMer" would not be a part of the national political discourse and, they would argue, majorities of both Republicans and Democrats would not support creating some sort of path to at least legal work status for the estimated 11.3 million undocumented people living in the United States. Those acts of outing, of stepping out of the shadows, have in turn inspired others and made a public and sustained political campaign in favor of DACA and DAPA -- and for that matter, comprehensive immigration reform -- impossible for lawmakers to totally ignore.
Although Sophie's interaction with Pope Francis was brief, the picture of her moment with him was beamed around the world and tweeted out by the nation's major Spanish-language news networks. Sophie told reporters Wednesday that she was prepared to ask the pope to speak to U.S. government officials on behalf of undocumented immigrants and that she also has a related letter that she would like to share with President Obama.
(Simlarly, in 2010, a child at a Maryland school raised the same issue with first lady Michelle Obama during her visit to the girl's school, creating widespread coverage of the girl's comments and the issue of immigration reform.)
And if you still doubt the degree to which immigrant activists are banking on the power of personal narrative to shape U.S. politics, consider this: The nation's largest Latino civil rights organization, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), hosts an annual convention complete with workshops aimed at training people around the country to be effective activists working toward a variety of causes. And every year since at least 2012, that's included at least one session on telling your personal story.