"Please don't separate my parents."
That plea was made by six year old Elianna Romero of South Bend, Indiana to an aide to Congresswoman Jackie Walorski (R-IN).
She and her mom, Julie Romero, were among the 400 or so activists yesterday who paid unannounced visits to 18 home offices of key US representatives. Their goal: to push for real immigration reform.
They didn't just chat. In Spanish and in English, the protesters sang "Happy Birthday" and delivered halves of birthday cakes and balloons to each office.
Why the birthday theme? Because this week marks the one year "birthday" of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, which allows people born elsewhere and brought to the US as kids to more easily live, work and study here with less fear of deportation.
Why half cakes? Because the job of keeping families united and truly welcoming immigrants is only half done. While DACA represents progress, thousands of parents remain in danger of suddenly being separated from their children and sent abroad. Advocates believe that comprehensive, "family-friendly" immigration legislation is still needed.
The events were organized by the Chicago-based Gamaliel Foundation. Gamaliel and other groups are urging Congress to pass the Senate version of an immigration reform bill (S. 744, sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer D-NY). They believe that the measure will keep new citizen DREAMers united with their families who still face the threat of deportation.
Unfortunately, the reception yesterday from Congressional representatives and their staffs was uneven at best.
St. Louis DREAMer Magali Mendoza plans to go to college and start her own business. When she walked into Congresswoman Ann Wagner's (R-MO) office, the staff greeted her with suspicion and asked why she hadn't called ahead for an appointment. Magali stood her ground, refused to get defensive, offered the cake and spoke movingly of her resolve to keep her family together.
Magali and her colleagues got a warmer welcome, however, at Congressman William "Lacy" Clay's (D-MO) office. There, she delivered an even more compelling testimony in a 'sit down' meeting with the whole office staff.
Jeannette Patsakis of PA Interfaith Impact Network brought her six year old granddaughter to Rep. Tim Murphy's (R-PA) office. But Murphy's staff had locked the door and sent out their youngest and most junior staffer outside to talk with the group. The group had to demand entrance and after finally being let in, the staff called the police, saying only "The Congressman was still listening to his constituents on this issue."
After being escorted out by the police, Jeannette's granddaughter said "This is so unfair. They brought four police officers with GUNS and two police cars and kicked us out- all I brought with me was my slinky!" Smart girl!
Positive Congressional responses, however, didn't break down along partisan lines. In Chicago, staff at Rep. Dan Lipinski's office treated the activists well, especially after hearing Mercedes Cuate worries about her 37-year-old daughter, who is not eligible for Deferred Action. "She missed the age requirement because she left Mexico at age 17," said Cuate, a member of St. Paul Catholic parish in the Pilsen neighborhood. "Had she come just one year earlier, my daughter would be secure. But she's now been here two decades, is college-educated, speaks four languages but may someday be deported."
"DACA leaves a lot of people out," Cuate said. "Additionally, that DACA is not stable. After four years, people will not be able to reapply. That's why we need Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform."
In Pittsburgh, Congressman Mike Doyle (D-PA) listened intently and responded compassionately to the 15 of members of PA Interfaith Impact Network that met with him.
In Wisconsin, however, 12 activists got the cold shoulder from aides to former GOP vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan. The office door was suddenly locked just before the activists showed up.
"As a courtesy, we called ahead. And just a few minutes before we got there, we saw people coming and going at the office," said Sandy Milligan, President of WISDOM.
"I guess we shouldn't have let them know we were coming," she said ruefully.
The group tied their balloons to Ryan's door and left his cake with a neighbor who promised to deliver it later.
Back in South Bend, as the group left Congresswoman Walorski's office, Julie Romero, the mom of 10-year-old Mary told her daughter "I'm very proud of you."
And we in Gamaliel are proud of both of them, and of all the brave and compassionate men, women and children who are fighting to make America the beacon of hope for immigrants our nation claims to be.
Follow Ana Garcia-Ashley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gamalielnetwork