Hoping to rally migrants' cause, L.A. pilgrims head off to see Pope Francis

Hoping to rally migrants' cause, L.A. pilgrims head off to see Pope Francis
Luis Hipolito, center, of Los Angeles and his children, Luis and Iris Alondra Hipolito, will travel to see Pope Francis when he visits Mexico next week. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Every weekday, Iris Alondra Hipolito waits for her 14-year-old brother Luis to arrive home from school.

The 17-year-old fixes Luis a meal of rice and shredded beef before she sits down to help with homework. She asks him about his day.


"I play the role of mom now," Iris said.

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Their mother lives more than 2,000 miles away in a small village in the outskirts of Oaxaca City in Mexico. Iris and Luis are U.S. citizens and can move back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border, but their mother has no legal status in this country. She wants their family's story told, and she hopes the leader of the Roman Catholic Church will tell it.

On Monday, Iris, Luis and their father, also named Luis, will join about other 20 Los Angeles pilgrims — mostly U.S. children of immigrant parents — on an overnight bus bound for El Paso, Texas. Their goal is to get a message to Pope Francis, who will celebrate Mass in Ciudad Juarez, not far from the border fence separating it from El Paso.

"I will ask the pope to please talk with the president and politicians who are against immigration reform. They think our stories aren't real but they are," she said. "My brother and I need our mother. There are many American children who don't have their parents because there is no immigration reform."

There are an estimated 5.5 million U.S. citizens who are the children of parents in the country without authorization, according to a USC study.

"These children are fighting for their rights. Many are young now but will someday vote," said Martha Ugarte, the trip coordinator and chaperon for the children making the trip to El Paso.

Ugarte was part of a group of immigrant rights activists that traveled last fall to the East Coast to give Francis a message detailing the plight of immigrants in the U.S. illegally and how current government policies affect the lives of such families. The message was delivered by Sophie Cruz, a 5-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents are in the country illegally.

Pope Francis reaches for Sophie Cruz, thedaughter of two immigrants in the country illegally, during a parade in Washington last September.
Pope Francis reaches for Sophie Cruz, thedaughter of two immigrants in the country illegally, during a parade in Washington last September. (Alex Brandon / AFP/Getty Images)

Sophie became a celebrity among immigrant rights activists when she successfully reached the pope on her second attempt after he motioned for her to approach him while his motorcade made its way past cheering crowds in Washington. Sophie handed the pontiff a letter, urging him to talk to President Obama and congressional leaders to pass some sort of immigration reform.

Like before, the group doesn't have an audience with the pope, but Iris said she will speak out about her situation during several planned events in El Paso.

During his U.S. visit in September, Francis did indeed address immigration. Without wading into the specifics of the U.S. immigration debate, he asked that immigrants be treated with compassion. His six-day Mexico trip, which begins Friday, will echo similar themes. An itinerary taking him from the southern state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, to Juarez at the northern border is meant to trace the path migrants take to reach the United States, especially those fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.

In 2003, Iris, Luis and their mother left Southern California and moved back to Mexico because the family feared they'd soon be forcibly separated by immigration officials.


The father, also in the country without legal status, stayed behind to work. The family soon regretted their decision because life in Mexico was increasingly difficult, and the children were beginning to forget their English. Iris and Luis returned to the U.S. two years ago, but their mother had to stay behind, fearing the treacherous journey north.

Ugarte said at least four other children with similar stories plan to be part of the L.A. contingent headed to Texas for the papal Mass on Feb. 17.

Some of the parents were deported while others voluntarily left the U.S. during a time of heightened anti-illegal immigration sentiment, she said. The group is still trying to raise money so other U.S. children can make the trip to the border. Some pilgrims plan to cross the Rio Grande to Juarez; some will join 50,000 others watching a simulcast of the Mass beamed to the Sun Bowl in El Paso.

For now, Iris regularly speaks with her mother on the telephone. But it's not the same.

"It's just so hard without her," she said.

Regardless, she said she wouldn't want her mother to make a clandestine journey north.

"If she were to return, every time she'd step foot outside the house would be difficult. We'd be afraid," Iris said. "We wouldn't know if she'd get caught and never return."

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