On his first trip to Washington this week, Elias Gonzales, 15, toured the Lincoln Memorial and gazed from the spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Then the Las Vegas teen made his way across town to the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill and prepared to engage in an act of civil disobedience.
“I’m just here chillin’ in Washington, about to get arrested,” he wrote on Facebook.
The eighth-grader, who has not seen his undocumented immigrant father since 2008, had come to the nation’s capital with his mother to pressure Congress to support an overhaul of immigration laws.
Elias and six other minors, ranging in age from 11 to 16, along with adult family members and supporters, planned to shut down the intersection of New Jersey and Independence avenues by sitting in the middle of the street on Wednesday afternoon. They did not intend to move until officers handcuffed them and put them in a police wagon.
The action, organized by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), was conceived as part of a broader escalation among immigrant rights groups. They are pressing Congress to act on legislation and President Obama to use his executive authority to stem deportations of the nation’s 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants.
Advocates view the next few months as a crucial window of opportunity before the midterm elections, so they have stepped up dramatic, in-your-face demonstrations. Allowing children to get arrested is a tactic intended to grab attention but also fraught with risks: Can a 15-year-old, or an 11-year-old, really make such a decision?
Organizers acknowledged they expected to receive criticism but defended the approach.
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, FIRM’s parent organization, said FIRM has been working with minors for the past year to teach them about civil disobedience.
The group brought in participants from the Birmingham “Children’s March” in 1963, in which children were arrested during a civil rights rally, to speak to a group of young FIRM members last year. In December, FIRM members younger than 18 occupied the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and sang songs until a security officer asked them to leave, and the kids pressed to get more involved, Bhargava said.
“The children chose to do this. They will take the lead, and that’s a dramatic shift in the level of risk-taking,” he said, noting that one message to House Republicans was one of electoral consequences among the next generation of voters. “I think there’s something particularly powerful to have young people, many of them citizens, participate in the movement.”
A parent or guardian must sign off on their child’s participation. Staffers promised they would provide legal counsel and pay expenses if a child was required to go to court.
As Elias and the six other young people arrived with their families at the Lutheran church on Tuesday for a day of training, FIRM staffer Mehrdad Azemun showed a video of the exchange in Cantor’s office.
“When we were leaving, we chanted, ‘We’ll be back, we’ll be back,’ ” Azemun explained. “Well, guess what? We’re back.” He compared their courage to other civil rights figures, including Rosa Parks and Gandhi.
The young people professed not to fear a night in prison, but they did have questions.
“Will this affect my college applications?” wondered Brian Sanchez, 13, of Phoenix, whose mother is an undocumented immigrant.
“I don’t know for sure,” answered Kate Kahan, another staff member. “You might have a misdemeanor. But it won’t be a felony.”
Though FIRM had helped organize similar street blockades, including one last September at which 104 adult women were arrested, the group had never enlisted minors to participate.
After informing the Capitol Police of their plans, the organizers were dismayed to learn that the underage protesters would be separated from the adults upon arrest and transferred to the custody of the D.C. Metropolitan Police, which deals with juveniles.
While the Capitol Police allow peaceful protesters to pay a $50 fee and be released within hours, it was unclear to the organizers what the local police would do with the children. Organizers elected to go forward only after the parents and children — who are members of FIRM’s affiliate groups across the country — insisted they were unafraid.
Evelyn Servin, 31, of Russellville, Ala., said her son Yahir, 11 — the youngest protester — declared “I’m ready” when she explained the situation to him.
In 2004, Servin’s husband, an undocumented immigrant, returned to Mexico to apply for a visa to return to the United States legally. He was told by authorities that because he had lived illegally in the United States, he would be barred from applying for 10 years. Two years later, he crossed the border illegally and has reunited with Servin and Yahir, who are both U.S. citizens. The family is fearful that he could be deported but that hasn’t stopped them from actively protesting.
In March, Yahir accompanied his mother to a demonstration at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala., where seven people, including Servin, were arrested after chaining themselves in front of the deportation facility.
As she was being led away by police, “Yahir hugged me and started crying, and I started crying,” Servin recalled. “People inside the detention center started banging on walls. One person held up a sign that said, ‘We miss our kids.’ It broke me.”
Time for action
During the six hours of training, which took on the feeling of a studious summer camp, the protesters practiced how to march to the intersection and arrange themselves on the pavement in a semicircle. Staffers took turns yelling at them through bullhorns.
They were taught how to deal with the police (don’t resist arrest) and how to prepare for a potentially long wait in jail (eat a big meal).
Elias, the oldest of seven siblings back in Las Vegas, was selected as the team leader.
“Can we sing, ‘Obama, Obama, don’t separate my daddy from my mama’?” he suggested, eliciting laughs.
In 2006, Elias’s father returned to Mexico to seek a legal visa. (Elias’s mother, Ivon, is a U.S. citizen.) But his father was denied, and Elias has not seen him since 2008, when he was arrested trying to sneak across the border, Ivon said.
“I was like, ‘Mom, where is dad at?’ ” Elias said. “She was like, ‘I need to tell you something: He’s not coming back.’ ”
The separation led to a divorce, and Ivon remarried another undocumented immigrant who works in construction. They live with seven children and two dogs in a two-bedroom apartment. Elias helps care for his siblings, getting them dressed and assisting with the cooking. He was missing a standardized test at his middle school to attend the protest.
“I told three of my teachers, and they said, ‘Perfect,’ ” he said. “Only my band teacher asked, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Because it could go on your record.’ I was like, ‘It’ll all be worth it.’ ”
On Wednesday, it was time for action and the group reconvened. Just before noon, the church doors swung open, and they emerged into a steady downpour wearing plastic rain ponchos over white T-shirts reading “Stop Separating Families.”
Holding a banner adorned with personal messages, the group marched down East Capitol Street, where a phalanx of motorcycle police was waiting for them, and turned left in front of the U.S. Capitol, as more officers streamed into the area.
“The youth united will never be divided!” they chanted at the intersection of New Jersey and Independence avenues. The lunchtime traffic stopped as the light turned red.
The young protesters walked into the street, set their banner on the wet asphalt, linked arms and sat down in a semicircle. A group of 18 adults in red T-shirts quickly followed, as the police moved to surround them.
One by one, the adults, and then the seven young protesters, were placed in plastic wrist restraints and put in two police vans. Among the youths, Yahir went first, a foot shorter than the arresting officers; Elias, his spiked dark hair now drenched and matted down, was the last.
“Si se puede!” Elias chanted defiantly, meaning “Yes, we can!”
In all, their civil disobedience shut down the intersection for 38 minutes. Three hours later, all of the protesters were released from jail. The kids had been fingerprinted, but none was charged with a crime.