WASHINGTON, D.C.—It's easy to forget that Sophie Cruz is only in first grade.
At the age of 6, she's already known as one of the most poised, courageous and inspirational spokespeople in the national movement for immigration reform. Her bright smile has made her a poster child for deportation relief, and her heartfelt words have made her a powerful advocate for change.
Sophie punches way above her weight. And the country is falling in love with her for it.
"When you see a girl who is so smart and friendly and humble, it gets everyone excited and filled with hope," legendary civil rights and labor leader Dolores Huerta told me, shortly after meeting Sophie. "Sophie is a very important symbol for all of us, and we love her very much."
The beauty of Sophie's message is its authenticity. Her parents insist she isn't being coached by anyone. She has no speechwriters. Her words are her own.
"I have the right to protection. I have the right to live with my parents. I have the right to live without fear. I have the right to be happy,” Sophie told a cheering crowd of 5,000 people in front of the Supreme Court on Monday, before leading a chant of "Si, se puede."
In quieter moments, Sophie—who first caught the world's attention last September when she slipped the police line to give the pope a handwritten letter asking for immigration relief for her parents—is like other little girls her age. She likes drawing, swimming lessons and taekwondo classes. She especially loves getting dressed up in folkloric costumes for her Mexican dance recitals.
I caught up with Sophie and her family a few hours after her show-stopping speech in front of Supreme Court on Monday. They were gathered in an Adams Morgan apartment with other immigration activists who were celebrating the massive turnout at the rally, and to share a birthday cake for one of the movement's members.
Sophie was out of activist mode, and back in little girl mode. She was playing rock-paper-scissors on the floor with her kid sister, Sahara. The expensive Mexican huipil that she wore to the rally had been folded and safely stored inside her suitcase, exchanged for a t-shirt that was one size too big and ready to absorb birthday cake stains. Her tight braids were coming undone after a full day of activism and play.
She's a pretty persuasive little girl. Just ask her parents. They were the first people Sophie convinced to fight for immigration reform.
As undocumented Mexicans from Oaxaca, Raul and Zoyla Cruz were living quiet lives in the shadows of Los Angeles. Raul spent the better part of a decade working odd jobs in construction, gardening and flipping burgers in restaurant kitchens, until he finally found stable work in a galvanized zinc plant. Zoyla stays at home with their two U.S.-born kids—Sophie and her 2-year-old sister—"working 24 hours a day," she says with patient laugh.
But Sophie had bigger plans for her family. She wanted to travel to Mexico to meet her grandparents. She wanted to go on an airplane to meet the pope. And she wanted to have a chat with President Obama in the White House.
Zoyla and Raul went along with their daughter's fantasies the best they could. But in reality, even traveling to Mexico to meet Sophie's grandparents was mission impossible. Without U.S. residency, a visit to Mexico would most likely be one-way trip for Zoyla and Raul. It was too risky to even contemplate seriously, so they came up with "thousands of excuses" about why they couldn't go.
Sophie eventually caught on.
"There comes a moment when you have to tell the truth, because you can't keep hiding it," Zoyla says. "We had to tell her we can't go to Mexico because there are papers that we don't have."
Sophie found that answer unacceptable.
"She said, 'Well, where do they sell those papers? Let's go buy them.' We told her, 'No, it's not that easy.' And she said, 'Why not? Let's fight for them.' She realized that it was an injustice that some people have papers and others don't," Zoyla says.
Sophie also started picking up on her parents' fears and anxieties. She would ask her parents why they started acting weird whenever police officers were around, or when they passed a traffic checkpoint on the highway.
"Children are smart, they pick up on everything," Zoyla said.
But Sophie really began to push the boundaries last August, at the age of five, when she learned the pope was going to visit Washington, D.C. That's when she announced to her parents that she was going to go on an airplane to the capital to give a message to the pope and finally have that meeting with President Obama.
Zoyla and Raul went along with Sophie's dream good-naturedly. Zoyla helped her daughter draft her letter the way Sophie wanted it, but never expecting that it would ever make it to the pope's hands. As the date approached, Sophie became more insistent. A group of immigration activists from their church was planning to go to the capital to see the pope, and Sophie was determined to join them.
The prospect of flying across the country without getting detained by immigration agents terrified Raul. But he says he started working long hours selling ice cream at Mexican festivals to raise extra money just in case.
Eventually he decided to suck it up and join the group of pilgrims, which hoped to lobby the pope on the need for immigration reform in the U.S. In the end, it was Sophie who made it happen. She wiggled her way through the police barricade as the popemobile approached and got Pope Francis to stop his motorcade and wave her over.
Sophie was carried to the pope, who kissed her on the head. She handed him her letter, then was led back to her father. It was one of the most spontaneous and emotional moments of the pope's trip to Washington.
The media fussed about whether Sophie was being used as a pawn by immigration activists, and even whether her letter to the pontiff was penned by a team a lawyers. But it was all Sophie, her parents insist.
"It was a very special moment," Sophie told me of her meeting with the pope. "I felt a lot of love. I thought that he was going to give immigration relief to my parents."
Her mom laughs.
"People are surprised because they think lawyers helped her with the letter, but it was nothing like that. This was her initiative," Zoyla told me. "If it weren't for her, we wouldn't be here in D.C., we'd be holed up in our homes living in fear. She brought us out in public and convinced us we need to fight."
"She gives us strength; she gives us the push to come out and speak," Raul adds. "It doesn't matter if we have papers or not, we are motivated by our children—to help them fulfill their dreams to study and have a better life and do all the things that we as parents couldn't do in our countries. That's what motivates us to fight for everyone, not just our family, but all families of migrants who are here in the United States. Because the United States is a country of immigrants."
Dolores Huerta says the Cruz family is a perfect example of why immigration reform is so desperately needed, starting with initiatives such as DAPA, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents—an Obama executive action that would give Soyla, Raul and more than 4 million other undocumented immigrant parents temporary work papers and reprieve from deportation.
Breaking up a family that's as loving and supportive as the Cruz's would be a crime far greater than crossing a border without proper authorization, she argues. Plus, it wasn't Mexicans who crossed the border, it was the border that crossed them when the U.S. gobbled up half of their country.
"There are excellent children who are the face of immigration for DAPA and DACA, but we also have to give thanks to the parents who support these children to become spokespeople for the movement," Huerta told me.
Part of supporting Sophie means protecting her from her overnight fame. Raul acknowledges that certain groups have approached his family with offers of money to use Sophie in ads and campaigns, but he says he has turned them down.
"We are not going to profit from this; we are only in this to support the mission of helping immigrants, and only when Sophie wants to," he said.
Raul said his family has received organizational help buying plane tickets to D.C. and paying for their hotel room this week, but insists they have "never received any cash payments."
Raul says the only way his family will stay involved in the movement is if Sophie can remain true to her voice and heart. They know their daughter can electrify and unify a crowd, but Raul says it has to be on her terms. And for the moment, they have no plans for future rallies, interviews or speaking engagements.
"She's just a little girl and she has other things she likes to do with her life, but she likes this too," Zoyla says.
Chances are, we haven't seen the last of Sophie. The Supreme Court's decision on DAPA is due in late June. Plus, she still has to meet President Obama.
"When she first returned from Washington she told me, 'Well I got to give the pope my letter, but I'm a little disappointed because I didn't get to talk to the president'."
Don't worry, Sophie. There's still time.