Immigration overhaul group allows children to be arrested

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WASHINGTON -- 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 New Jersey and Independence avenues intersection by sitting in the middle of the street Wednesday afternoon. They did not intend to move until police handcuffed them and put them in a paddy wagon.

The action, organized by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, or FIRM, was conceived as part of a broader escalation among immigrant rights groups.

They are pressing Congress to act on legislation and President Barack Obama to use 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 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 11-year-old make such a decision?

Organizers acknowledged that they expected criticism but defended the approach. Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, FIRM's parent organization, said it has been working with minors for the past year to teach 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 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, Mr. 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 six other young people arrived with their families at the Lutheran church Tuesday for a day of training, FIRM staffer Mehrdad Azemun showed a video of the exchange in Mr. Cantor's office. "When we were leaving, we chanted, 'We'll be back, we'll be back,' " Mr. 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?" asked Brian Sanchez, 13, of Phoenix, whose mother is undocumented.

"I don't know for sure," replied staff member Kate Kahanr. "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.

During the six hours of training, 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 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 team leader.

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 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.' "

The group reconvened just before noon Wednesday, 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 awaited, and turned left in front of the U.S. Capitol, as more officers streamed in.

In all, their civil disobedience shut down the intersection for 38 minutes. Three hours later, all the protesters were released. The kids had been fingerprinted, but none was charged with a crime.


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