For more than a month, a desk in the middle of a fourth grade classroom at Jefferson Elementary School sat conspicuously empty.
Until December, 9-year-old Rodrigo Guzman occupied the desk, one of four clustered together. But when Rodrigo and his parents were denied re-entry from Mexico into the United States in January because their visas had expired, the desk sat empty for at least a month, a sentinel of sorts to the hope that Rodrigo would rejoin 27 classmates. Finally, Rodrigo’s teacher, Barbara Wenger took it out.
“We were just waiting for him to get back from his family vacation,” said Wenger. “We were just waiting. After we realized he was not going to come back we rearranged the classroom and removed the desk.”
But even though Rodrigo, who came to Berkeley when his was 18 months’ old, is stuck near Mexico City, desperately missing Little Caesar’s pizza, tacos from Rubio’s, and Fruit Gushers, his classmates are not giving up hope he will return.
“He hates it there,” said Scott Kuwahara, 9, one of Rodrigo’s friends. “He doesn’t really speak Spanish that well, but he speaks really good English. He is tired of Mexican food. He wants American food. He wants hot dogs.”
The kids, with the help of parents, particularly Scott’s mother, Mabel Yee, have launched a campaign, “Bring Rodrigo Home – Kids for Kids,” to pressure the U.S. government into letting the family return to Berkeley. They have written letters to President Obama and Congressional representatives, set up an online petition on Change.org, as well as a Facebook appeal, and kept Rodrigo’s spirits high through Skype conversations and by playing the Internet game Minecraft together.
Now the campaign is about to kick into high gear. The Berkeley Unified School District Board passed a resolution March 13 calling on the U.S. government to enact a logical and compassionate immigration policy that would allow Rodrigo to come home. On Tuesday, after a 6:00 p.m. press conference by some of Rodrigo’s classmates, the Berkeley City Council will consider a similar resolution.
“Hopefully we can come up with a humanitarian solution that fixes this problem,” said City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who is sponsoring the measure with fellow council members Jesse Arreguín, Max Anderson and Linda Maio.
Five of Rodrigo’s friends — all nine year olds – hope to go to Washington D.C. in April to join thousands of others in a march that calls for immigration reform. The kids also hope to testify before Congress about how they miss their classmate and how they think he did nothing wrong.
“It isn’t fair he is stuck in Mexico,” said Kaiya Daniels, 9, a classmate. “All of his classmates and all of his friends miss him and he misses Berkeley. I want him to be able to come back to Berkeley and to Jefferson.”
Rodrigo moved to the United States around 2006 and joined his grandmother and other relatives in Berkeley. He thrived in Berkeley, quickly learning English and adopting American tastes and habits. Maggie Riddle, the Principal of Jefferson, calls him “thoughtful, kind, athletic – everything you could want in a student.”
Wenger believes he is a natural leader.
“He has been a symbol of hope for me — a student whose home language is Spanish but who is an advanced reader and mathematician in our classroom, and who had so much to contribute to his school community,” Wenger wrote Congresswoman Barbara Lee. “He had a bright future here and he has the potential to be the kind of future leader our country needs.”
His parents, who are not married, came to the United States on visitors’ visas, which they periodically renewed, often traveling to Tijuana to do so, according to friends who know the family. But Rodrigo’s parents let the visas lapse in recent years, a fact immigration officials noticed when they tried to reenter the country after a Christmas trip to Mexico.
When Rodrigo and his parents, Javier Ponce Guzman and Reyna Diaz Mayida, flew into Houston on Jan. 10, both the parents were denied re-entry, said Yee. The family was put on a plane back to Mexico City the next day and told they would have to wait five years before they could reapply for a visa. They were not permitted to retrieve their possessions from Berkeley.
Yee and others hope to raise enough awareness of Rodrigo’s plight to turn him into a “face,” for hardworking immigrants who have no legal path towards residency or citizenship. They hope to bring the family back using “humanitarian parole,” which the government defines as an action “used sparingly to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency.” The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can grant humanitarian parole if there is “a significant public benefit.”
Rodrigo’s absence has deeply affected many of the students at Jefferson Elementary, according to Yee. In February, during Black History Month, the fourth grade was studying how Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks fought for their civil rights. They began to wonder whether Rodrigo’s rights were also being affected.
To the kids, “it looks so unfair,” said Wenger. “Here is a kid was doing as well or better as any of the kids in the classroom, a model student, and because of his citizenship he is not allowed to be in the classroom.”
Some of the kids wanted to do something for Rodrigo so Wenger stayed after school one day to help them write letters to Obama. She has tried to explain immigration laws in basic terms but nine and ten year olds cannot understand the concept behind terms like “expedited removal,” she said.
For Yee, Rodrigo’s plight has been an opportunity for her to make connections to other periods in which the U.S. discriminated against minorities. She has spoken to her twin sons, Scott and Kyle, about the fact that their ancestors were sent to detention camps during World War II because U.S. officials feared their Japanese heritage meant they sided with the enemy. She recently learned that during World War II FBI agents knocked on the door of the house they currently live in on the Arlington. The federal agents had been out in the bay by the Farrallon Islands and had noticed a steady blinking light. They thought it might be the signal of an enemy agent, and had come to investigate. The agents discovered that a loose electrical wire was causing the blinking light and went away. Yee has explained to her sons that if the family had been living in the house, they most likely would have been detained because of their Asian heritage.
“We are taking this incident (Rodrigo) and taking it beyond Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” said Yee. “The kids are fascinated. They see it and they feel it is their moment.
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