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On a recent afternoon, 15-year-old Marlon Parras stood on a stage in front of 3,000 people and talked about the hardships he and his 13-year-old sister, Emiely, have faced since their parents were deported to Guatemala.
He wept as he spoke softly of their parents' decision to leave the children, both American citizens, with relatives and church members so they could continue their education in suburban Atlanta."This is not a family," Parras told the crowd that rose to its feet during his emotional testimony. "This is not fair."
Two years after a sweeping immigration reform bill failed in Congress, Latino leaders have revitalized the effort, positioning children who were left behind when their parents were deported as the new face of the movement. The campaign is designed to place pressure on President Barack Obama to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority.
Borrowing a page from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Latinos have taken their cause to churches, drawing upon the growing population of evangelical Latinos who are strong advocates of family values. While Hispanics overwhelmingly remain Roman Catholics, nearly one in six in the U.S. identify as evangelicals, the second largest religious group in the Latino community, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
"We know there's a huge economic crisis confronting America, so there is a vigorous response to it. So are health care and foreclosures. We want to make sure President Barack Obama understands that while all these things are urgent and need his attention, we want him to keep his promise to address comprehensive immigration reform during the first year of his first term," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has organized rallies in 17 cities, including Chicago and Joliet. "Our families are the cornerstone of our society, and we want to protect those families."
Packing a large evangelical church in suburban Atlanta, the mostly Latino audience shouted "Amen" and waved as ministers preached about how God would protect them. For more than three hours, they prayed, sang spirituals in Spanish and listened to the testimonies of families torn apart at the hands of federal immigration agents.
The stories are designed to tug at the heartstrings of Americans and focus attention on what community leaders said is the most tragic consequence of the federal government's crackdown on illegal immigration -- the breakup of families, a problem they said impacts up to 5 million children, most of whom were born in the U.S. and automatically are citizens.
Immigration reform has always been a controversial and divisive issue in America, and during tough economic times, opponents said, it could be difficult to gain public support for legislation that could provide legal citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants.
Still, sharing the stage with Rep. John Lewis, (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, Gutierrez brought the movement deep into conservative Republican territory, where many residents support efforts to secure the borders rather than granting widespread citizenship to illegal immigrants. Georgia has one of the fastest growing illegal immigrant populations in the nation, rising to about 490,000 in 2008 from 228,000 in 2000, according to state estimates.
But Latino leaders are hoping that concern and empathy for broken families will galvanize the Latino community and draw the support of other Americans.
Organizers are gathering thousands of petitions and plan a huge rally in Washington in July.
"When you have a 15-year-old American citizen speak very emotionally and eloquently about his pain, most Americans will say, 'We didn't know the system was that broken,'" said Gutierrez, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' Immigration Task Force, which is promoting the movement. "Americans do support the basic premise that children should not be held accountable for the actions of adults."
Latinos turned out for Obama 2 to 1 in the 2008 election, according to exit polls, and helped him capture key battleground states such as New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Now, they want him to honor his campaign promise.
"We understand that Mr. Obama is in a difficult position and he is trying to be a reformer," said Rev. Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which represents 20,000 churches in 34 states. "Latinos supported him because they were extremely disappointed with Republicans and the ultra conservative right wing evangelical movement. So it is important that he make immigration reform a priority."
It would be difficult to get an immigration bill through Congress at a time when big spending bills are causing controversy, according to Michael Franc, vice president for government relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation. It is a subject, Franc said, that is divisive among Democrats as well as Republicans.
"There was a schism on the Democratic side during the last immigration debate, but because the Republicans were so vocal in their opposition, no one noticed the Democrats' reluctance," Franc said.
When people are out of work and struggling to keep their own families together, there is less sympathy for illegal immigrants, he said. A tight job market and the competition for jobs provided in the stimulus package could also influence public perceptions about immigration.