LA immigration group at center of girl's encounter with pope

5-Year-Old Girl Meets Pope Francis After Writing Letter


WASHINGTON (AP) — Sophie Cruz's brief encounter with Pope Francis during his parade in Washington this week appeared to be the kind of spontaneous moment that is so endearing about this pope: an initially hesitant young child wrapping an arm around his neck as he offers a kiss and a blessing.

But for 5-year-old Sophie, the moment unfolded as perfectly as it was scripted by members of a coalition of Los Angeles-based immigration rights groups. They had been preparing for nearly a year for the young girl from suburban Los Angeles to make a dash for the popemobile to deliver a message about the plight of immigrant parents living in the country illegally.

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They had even pulled off a similar public-relations coup a year ago in Rome using a 10-year-old girl with the pope.

"We planned to do this from the moment we learned he was coming to the States," Juan Jose Gutierrez of the Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition told The Associated Press. "We have been working for a while now trying to sensitize the American public that dealing with immigration is not just dealing with the people who came in without proper documents but that we also have ... countless children whose parents are undocumented."

See photos of Sophie running to the pope:

4 PHOTOS
Sophie Cruz, little girl who gave the pope a message
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LA immigration group at center of girl's encounter with pope
WASHINGTON D.C, UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 23: Pope Francis takes care with a little girl, named Sopihe, after she broke security measures and ran towards him during a parade in Washington D.C, United States on September 23, 2015. (Photo by Esra Kaymak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON D.C, UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 23: Pope Francis takes care with a little girl, named Sopihe, after she broke security measures and ran towards him during a parade in Washington D.C, United States on September 23, 2015. (Photo by Esra Kaymak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON D.C, UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 23: Pope Francis takes care with a little girl, named Sopihe, after she broke security measures and ran towards him during a parade in Washington D.C, United States on September 23, 2015. (Photo by Esra Kaymak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON D.C, UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 23: A little girl, named Sopihe, is seen after she broke security measures and ran towards Pope Francis (not seen) during a parade in Washington D.C, United States on September 23, 2015. (Photo by Esra Kaymak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Gutierrez said the group decided to use the children of immigrants to represent their push for immigration reforms to the pope, a staunch supporter of immigrants. "We have been looking for children to make the case that we as adults have been making for years," he said.

Sophie was selected for the Washington trip because she "impressed us all so much that we felt she would be our best spokesman," Gutierrez said. If she had been unsuccessful in Washington attracting the pope's attention, he said, she would have traveled with the group to New York and then Philadelphia to try again.

Sophie refused to the leave the pope's side Wednesday until a bodyguard took a handwritten letter and a T-shirt.

Her note to Francis detailed fears that her parents, immigrants from Mexico who don't have legal status in the United States, could be deported. But their risk of being deported is slight under the Obama administration's policies, which focus on deporting serious criminals.

"I believe I have the right to live with my parents," Sophie told the AP after her moment with the pope. "I have the right to be happy. My dad works very hard in a factory galvanizing pieces of metal. All immigrants just like my dad feed this country. They deserve to live with dignity. They deserve to live with respect."

Gutierrez said Sophie crafted her own letter to the pope and wasn't prompted what to tell reporters who caught up with her later.

"She didn't have anyone coaching her," Gutierrez said. "She just spoke from her heart. It all came from her."

The same group, which includes members of the Hermandad Mexicana Transnacional, orchestrated an equally successful effort in Rome last year with 10-year-old Jersey Vargas, who pleaded with Francis to urge President Barack Obama to free her immigrant father from a Louisiana detention center. Following Jersey's encounter, a relative helped post bond for the jailed dad.

The group traveled to Washington with Sophie and her 36-year-old father, Raul, and sent Sophie to the popemobile with a bright yellow T-shirt with a message in Spanish asking Francis to "rescue DAPA." The message referred to Obama's now-stalled program Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Permanent Residents. It would allow millions of immigrants living in the country illegally to apply for permission to legally stay and work here. A federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the effort in February as part of a lawsuit by 26 states challenging it.

Sophie and her supporters were preaching to the choir with Francis. In his remarks at the White House before the parade, the pope said, "As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families." And in a historic speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday, he urged lawmakers to respond to the migration crisis in Europe and U.S. immigration issues "in a way which is humane, just and fraternal."

As stage-managed as Sophie's effort was, that the pigtailed-5-year-old was able to wriggle her way onto the parade route along Constitution Avenue and get the pope's attention required a lot of luck considering the massive security entourage surrounding the pontiff.

When Sophie made her first moves toward Francis' modified, open-air Jeep, a uniformed officer appeared to start walking her back to her father and others in her group still behind a security barrier. A different, suit-clad security agent also appeared to shoo the young girl, who appeared hesitant as the officials approached, before Francis himself beckoned her to the side of his Jeep.

Gutierrez said Sophie's success came from a "combination of factors, one being in the right spot at the right time." He added that he thinks Francis may also have remembered Jersey.

"When he saw this little girl," Gutierrez said, "he had to have known in his heart that this was another important message in the form of a little girl."

PHOTOS: The first day of the pope's visit to NYC

23 PHOTOS
Pope Francis in NYC, St. Patricks Cathedral
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LA immigration group at center of girl's encounter with pope
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25: Pope Francis arrives for a multi-religious service at the site of the 9/11 memorial and Museum on September 25, 2015 in New York City. The Pope is on a six-day visit to the U.S., with stops in Washington, New York City and Philadelphia. (Photo by Thomas A. Ferrara - Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25: Pope Francis speaks during a multi-religious prayer for peace at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on September 25, 2015 in New York City. Pope Francis is in New York on a two day visit and will carry out a number of engagements including a Papal motorcade through Central Park and a Mass in Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Pope Francis celebrates evening prayers at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on September 24, 2015. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis greets people as he leaves St. Patrick's Cathedral September 24, 2015 in New York City. The Pope is on his first trip to the United States, visiting Washington, DC, New York and Philadelphia. (Photo by Chad Rachman-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis speaks to the congregation at St. Patrick's Cathedral September 24, 2015 in New York City. The Pope is on his first trip to the United States, visiting Washington, DC, New York and Philadelphia. (Photo by Chad Rachman-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis walks across the altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral September 24, 2015 in New York City. The Pope is on his first trip to the United States, visiting Washington, DC, New York and Philadelphia. (Photo by Chad Rachman-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis is assisted as he leads a service at St Patrick's Cathedral on September 24, 2015 in New York City. Pope Francis is in New York on a two day visit and will carry out a number of engagements including a Papal motorcade through Central Park and a Mass in Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Parishioners wait for Pope Francis to arrive at Saint Patrick's Cathedral on September 24, 2015 in New York City. The Pope is scheduled to celebrate vespers, or evening prayers, and a shared a reflection after a procession down 5th Ave. (Photo by Robert Sabo-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis leads a service at St Patrick's Cathedral on September 24, 2015 in New York City. Pope Francis is in New York on a two day visit and will carry out a number of engagements including a Papal motorcade through Central Park and a Mass in Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves as he approaches the St Patrick's Cathedral to lead evening prayers in New York on September 24, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in New York on the second leg of his US tour where he will address the UN General Assembly, visit the 9/11 Memorial and celebrate mass at Madison Square Garden. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves as he approaches St Patrick's Cathedral to lead evening prayers in New York on September 24, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in New York on the second leg of his US tour where he will address the UN General Assembly, visit the 9/11 Memorial and celebrate mass at Madison Square Garden. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis makes his way down 5th Avenue in New York City on his way to St. Patrick's in New York City September 24, 2015 . The Pope will hold a prayer service at St. Patricks Cathedral . AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis acknowledges well-wishers outside St. Patrick's Cathedral as New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo (L) and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (C) look on September 24, 2015 in New York City. The pope is on a six-day visit to the U.S., with stops in Washington, New York City and Philadelphia. (Photo by Damon Winter-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Crowds cheer as Pope Francis drives down 5th Avenue while on his way to St. Patrick's Cathedral on September 24, 2015 in New York City. The Pope will offer evening prayers tonight at St. Patrick's Cathedral. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves as he approaches St. Patrick's Cathedral to lead evening prayers in New York on September 24, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in New York on the second leg of his US tour where he will address the UN General Assembly, visit the 9/11 Memorial and celebrate mass at Madison Square Garden. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Spectators watch from the corner of 51st Street and Fifth Avenue trying to get a glimpse of Pope Francis as he enters St. Patrick's Cathedral September 24, 2015 in New York City. The pope is on a six-day visit to the U.S., with stops in Washington, New York City and Philadelphia. (Photo by Aristide Economopoulos-Pool/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gestures as he approaches the St Patrick's Cathedral to lead evening prayers in New York on September 24, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in New York on the second leg of his US tour where he will address the UN General Assembly, visit the 9/11 Memorial and celebrate mass at Madison Square Garden. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis gets off his mobile as he arrives at St. Patrick's Cathedral to lead evening prayers in New York on September 24, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in New York on the second leg of his US tour where he will address the UN General Assembly, visit the 9/11 Memorial and celebrate mass at Madison Square Garden. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives at the St Patrick's Cathedral to lead evening prayers in New York on September 24, 2015. Pope Francis arrived in New York on the second leg of his US tour where he will address the UN General Assembly, visit the 9/11 Memorial and celebrate mass at Madison Square Garden. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis is given a gift during his arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport September 24, 2015 in New York City. The Pope is on his first trip to the United States, visiting Washington, DC, New York and Philadelphia. (Photo by Craig Ruttle-Pool/Getty Images)
Pope Francis makes his way down 5th Avenue in New York City on his way to St. Patricks in New York City September 24, 2015 . The Pope will hold a prayer service at St. Patricks Cathedral . AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (R) and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton (L) wait outside St. Patrick's Cathedral for the arrival of Pope Francis September 24, 2015 in New York City. Maryland.The pope is on a six-day visit to the U.S., with stops in Washington, New York City and Philadelphia. (Photo by Damon Winter-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport September 24, 2015 in New York City. The Pope is on his first trip to the United States, visiting Washington, DC, New York and Philadelphia. (Photo by Craig Ruttle-Pool/Getty Images)
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