For 10-year-old Jersey Vargas, her four siblings and her parents, Teodula and Mario — a humble immigrant family living in the Los Angeles area — the last three months have been a blur, from Jersey’s rare opportunity to meet Pope Francis, to Mario’s long-awaited release from an ICE detention center, to the whirlwind of media attention that followed their heartfelt family reunion.
But this outgoing soon-to-be-fifth grader wouldn’t change a single thing.
“I have been happier than ever, because now that I have my dad at home my family is complete,” Jersey told The Tidings. “We’re all together. When my dad wasn’t here with us, there was always this place that always felt so empty.”
Mario had been living and working in Tennessee — and sending money home to his family — when he was detained for driving without a license. In late March, with her father’s deportation looming after six months in federal custody, Jersey traveled to Vatican City as part of a delegation of U.S. children whose immigrant parents are facing deportation due to the nation’s existing immigration laws.
Jersey was the only member of the group who spoke with Pope Francis. She gave the pontiff an embroidered handkerchief and received a blessing in return, along with the promise that he would speak with President Obama about her dad during their first meeting on March 27.
After posting $5,000 bail, Mario was finally released the next day (though it’s unclear if the meeting had any direct impact). When Jersey returned home on March 29, her father was already waiting for her.
Now the family is embarking on the next chapter of their journey. With the support of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), their attorney Alex Galvez and other supporters, Jersey and her family left June 15 for Washington, D.C., June 15-20 to present “handkerchiefs of peace” to several U.S. Congress members — and hopefully to President Obama as well — and to urge them to work together to finally pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Before departing on their five-day journey, Jersey, her family members and the handkerchiefs were blessed by Archbishop José Gomez June 14 at the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the plaza of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
“Our deportation policy is breaking up families — leaving children without parents; that’s what happened to Jersey and her family,” said Archbishop Gomez during the blessing ceremony. “So we bless you and these handkerchiefs with our prayers to our leaders in Washington. We pray that this humble gesture will help our leaders to hear the cries of these people who are suffering — these people who are our neighbors and friends, people we work with and go to church with.
“We need immigration reform now; we can’t let another year go by, debating but doing nothing,” he added. “We need reform that is real and comprehensive — so all our brothers and sisters can live with the dignity that God intends for them.”
The white handkerchiefs — all hand-embroidered by Jersey’s mother, Teodula, with the phrase “11 Millones” — are intended to be tangible symbols of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. who are in need of comprehensive immigration reform. The handkerchiefs are also embroidered with the names of their intended recipients: Rep. John Boehner, Rep. Xavier Becerra, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Rep. Eric Cantor, and President Obama.
Jersey’s experiences over the last three months have ranged from “scary” to “privileged” — as in, a privilege to represent others like herself.
“When I read my letter to Pope Francis in front of the cameras it was scary to me, but after that I started getting used to it,” she recalled. “Now I feel honored to be representing millions of undocumented people, representing children whose parents are going to be deported.
“I feel that praying has helped me — when my dad was in Tennessee working, and then when he was in jail,” she continued. “I had faith in God that he would help my dad come back home. Now I pray that I can help other people.”
During the June 14 ceremony, Archbishop Gomez also blessed and crowned a replica statue of Our Lady of Zapopan, the patron saint of Guadalajara who has been dubbed “la reina (the queen)” of immigration.