Jefferson kids fight to bring classmate back from Mexico

Rodrigo2

Rodrigo Guzman: his classmates at Berkeley’s Jefferson Elementary School want to see him return to school

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.

Rodrigo Guzman

Kyle Kuwahara, a fourth grader at Jefferson Elementary, tells the BUSD school board why he thinks Rodrigo Guzman should come home. He was joined at the podium by his twin, Scott, Aminah Diaby and Kaiya Daniels

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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  • West Berkeley Neighbor

    I wonder what the message to the kids is about this – I understand asking for a compassionate response – why not ask? But is it made clear that the family made a mistake and *that’s* why compassionate intervention is required, or is the message inaccurately directed at something the government “did wrong”? It seems the message is very muddled, and that’s a shame.

    It’s one thing to want, and to fight for, changes to the immigration system and policies, but this case doesn’t fit for that. The parents were eligible for visas, and could have had valid ones in place (or so it seems from the story). They failed to do their paperwork. That’s not a rights issue, that’s just a big mistake on their part. The students should be clear that the fault lies with the parents and not the US government in this case. As much as I love Jefferson, I fear that the children are not being given clear information about what the facts are here.

  • guest

    Obedience to the law is not the measure of fairness or justice. After legally coming to the USA, your ancestors could have legally owned slaves, legally owned land under restrictive whites only covenants, legally beat their wives, and legally employed child labor.

  • http://twitter.com/Pappachoppers Pappachoppers

    Makes a lot of sense. This reminds me of a story where a soldier coming back from Iraq came to his child’s school with the news media to surprise his daughter in class. The principle refused his request, and his daughter was ushered to the office where she greeted her dad. The family of the soldier and the News media became distraught that he could not greet his chid in front of her peers on live TV. What they did not know, and the principle rightfully did not tell them was that another child’s dad was killed the year before. Although the story is different, we should remind ourselves to think of other children; and this child’s status is based upon the parent’s actions, which has nothing to do with his rights being denied. Shame on the teachers who fail to understand the difference and use their bully pulpit to distort facts.

  • guest
  • http://twitter.com/Pappachoppers Pappachoppers

    Congratulations pc.parker! You have just provided readers with a classic example of argumentum ad hominem.

  • http://twitter.com/Pappachoppers Pappachoppers

    They don’t care about fairness, only what they want.

  • The_Sharkey

    The realistic and fair path was for them to live and work in California was their visas, which they made the decision not to renew.

  • guest

    Thank you Tracey. I wish to point out that Frances’ account does not accord with what Mabel Yee wrote for the change.org petition that Frances linked to or with the account in the item before council.

    Also: Frances wrote that Rodrigo’s parents “let the visas expire”.

    To say that they *let* the visas expire is to suggest a wanton disregard for the process as opposed to a mistake or some circumstance beyond reasonable control. It is prejudicial language, unsourced.

    To say that they let the *visas* expire is to suggest certainty that all three had expired when in Yee’s account and the account before council, there is at least doubt about that.

    If you patiently read through the many harsh comments here you’ll see that many of them assume as fact a wanton disregard for the process regarding all three visas.

    There is a quite a lot here to dishearten the fourth graders and Rodrigo’s other supporters based on this questionable information plus the general tone of comments here. They are apparently expected to learn not only to fear public authority and that appeal for change is futile, but that apparently Berkeley’s adults would prefer to see these young people demoralized and are critical of their teachers for resisting that outcome.

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    I spoke with Yee and Wenger who had both spoken with Rodrigo’s mother. Both told me that she had a visitor’s visa. Yee said she used to travel to Mexico every six months to renew it, but had not renewed it since at least 2011. Wenger also told me that both parents’ visas had expired. Yee consulted with an immigration attorney who told her that the family had very few options, which is why the group is trying for humanitarian parole. I wrote what I learned even if the City Council resolution says something different.

  • guest

    Yee wrote “However, the mother thought her visa and her son’s were still valid.”

    That those visas may or may not have in fact expired in 2011, or that they may or may not have few legal options are valid questions but miss the point I hoped to raise to you. Oh well.

    “I wrote what I learned even if the City Council resolution says something different.”

    We have at least three accounts to pick from here.

  • Katie

    Pizza and gushers are probably the least of his worries. That’s a pretty shallow statement.

  • Mbfarrel

    Well, at least the kids here can Skype Rodrigo.

  • Jillian

    The Farallon Islands are about 30 mi. offshore and so definitely not in SF Bay!

  • andrew

    hi bgal. Im a local journalist, interested in speaking to you about this story. Please contact me at astelzer@kqed.org thanks!

  • condaggitt

    I agree we need reform….how about…No interpreters at any immigration
    hearing. If you cant read , write and speak English then you haven’t
    made enough of an effort to become an American and you need to go back
    home

  • Guest

    Welcome back, Tom.

  • Rose Christo

    I am Native American and I like to think I am probably a very liberal person. I can get very loud about the immigration debate…

    But I still think it’s this boy’s parents’ fault for letting their visas lapse. They did this to their child, not the government. And I am NO fan of the government!