On a recent afternoon, 15-year-old Marlon Parras stood on stage in front of 3,000 people and talked about the hardships he and his 13-year-old sister have faced since their parents were deported to Guatemala.
He wept as he spoke of his parents’ decision to leave them, both American citizens, with relatives and church members so they could continue their education in suburban Atlanta.
“This is not a family,” Marlon told the crowd. “This is not fair.”
Two years after an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws 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 pressure President Obama to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority.
Borrowing a page from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, supporters of immigration rights have taken their cause to churches, drawing upon the growing population of evangelical Latinos, who are strong advocates of family values. Nearly 1 in 6 Latinos in the U.S. identify themselves as evangelicals, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Only Roman Catholics make up a larger group.
“We want to make sure President Barack Obama understands that while [the economy] . . . needs 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 V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has organized rallies in 17 cities. “Our families are the cornerstone of our society, and we want to protect those families.”
The mostly Latino audience that packed the large evangelical church in Norcross prayed, sang spirituals and heard from families -- including the Parrases -- that have been torn apart.
Their stories are designed to focus attention on what community leaders said was the most tragic consequence of the crackdown on illegal immigration: the breakup of families. It is a problem that Latino leaders have said affects up to 5 million children, most of whom were born in the U.S. and therefore are citizens.
During tough economic times, it may be difficult to gain public support for legislation that could provide legal citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants.
Still, Gutierrez -- who shared the church stage with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon -- brought the effort deep into conservative territory, where many support plans to secure the borders rather than grant widespread citizenship. 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 their community and draw the support of others. Organizers are gathering thousands of petitions and plan a 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. “Americans do support the basic premise that children should not be held accountable for the actions of adults.”
Latinos turned out 2 to 1 for Obama over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election, 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,” said the 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.”
Michael Franc, vice president for government relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said overhauling immigration laws was a divisive subject among Democrats as well as Republicans.
“They hate it. It’s radioactive on both sides of the aisle,” Franc said. “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.”
When people are out of work and struggling to keep their families together, there is less sympathy for illegal immigrants, he said. A tight job market and the competition for jobs provided in the federal stimulus package also could influence public perceptions about immigration.
“If you are trying to reach out to newer audiences and expand the pro-immigration reform level of support, it is easier to feel sympathy for the horror stories coming into your living room on your TV screen when things are going well for everybody,” Franc said. “If you have a job, the story of those kids pulls on your heartstrings, but it is perceived differently when you are wondering how you are going to pay your bills because the economy is tanking.”
Still, Latino leaders are highlighting the stories of people like Tanyia Lopez, 12, whose mother was deported to Honduras last year, leaving her and her four younger siblings, including a chronically ill 2-year-old. Their 16-year-old aunt dropped out of high school to care for them full time. They recently faced eviction because their grandmother lost her job. They have depended on their church for survival.
“The little ones don’t understand what happened to our mom,” Tanyia said, adding that they have no money to join her in Honduras. “We all miss her and we want to be together.”