A Child of Undocumented Immigrants on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON, D.C.—It was her first flight on an airplane. The cars and houses out the window looked like toys to 10 year-old Kathy Figueroa, as she landed in the nation’s capital.

It was also the first time she’d been away from her parents since the day they returned home from three months in Arizona detention centers, after being arrested by Maricopa County sheriff deputies in a carwash raid in Phoenix a year ago.

Figueroa traveled to Washington D.C. to share her story at an ad-hoc committee hearing held by Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva to assess the potential impact of Arizona’s new immigration law on women and children.

“I come here to tell President Obama and Congress that he needs to put a stop to SB 1070,” she said in an interview about the new law taking effect on July 29, that makes it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant in Arizona.

Figueroa’s testimony last Thursday took place at a time when the author of SB 1070 is promoting additional legislation that would deny an Arizona birth certificate to children like her who have a parent who is an undocumented immigrant. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are about 4 million U.S. citizen children in that situation.

Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) says he is prepared to challenge the lawsuits that would surely follow such legislation.

The hearing, on June 10 took place just a few days before the one-year-anniversary of the arrest of Figueroa’s parents, Carlos and Sandra.  A backlog in the immigration courts has bought them time to stay in the U.S. as they fight against deportation.

“It was very hard for me. Every time when I went to school I kept thinking that maybe I would see my parents when I came home,” she said during the hearing. “I would also have bad dreams, like the deputies were taking my family and me to jail.”

She is still afraid.

Listen to Katherine Figueroa’s testimony:
[audio: KathySpeech2.mp3]

Figueroa has become a poster child for the immigration movement since she appeared in a YouTube video asking Obama, as the father of two daughters, to pass immigration reform and help release her parents. She also marched with other children to protest the actions of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

“Not only are parents fighting back; their kids are doing the same thing to change the laws that are separating us from our parents,” she said. “Please help us. Children don’t know what to do without their parents.”

kathy figueroa1

A few minutes before the hearing started, as people and media filled the room, Figueroa was self-composed. She said she has to be calm if one day she is to become an attorney. Speaking to members of Congress, she commented, was a little bit like being an attorney for others, acting as an advocate for children like her.

“Please tell President Obama to stop putting parents in jail, when all they want is a better life for their kids,” said Figueroa to an audience that included 6 members of Congress. Earlier in the day she testified at the Labor Department and to administration officials.

Congressman Grijalva said this was the first time that a congressional committee heard the testimony of child on the controversial and emotional issue of immigration. He said he hoped the hearing would take the shape of a letter signed by members of Congress to President Obama, asking him to have the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) join the ongoing lawsuits against SB 1070.

The administration is expected to make an announcement later this week in reference to the new law.

At the end of the hearing, a pack of reporters rushed in to interview Figueroa. She retreated a little in her chair, then took the interviews, one by one, sometimes in English, other times in Spanish.

She stuck to her message, telling Congress to take action on immigration reform, and reminding President Obama that SB 1070 needs to be stopped.

“I don’t want any other children to have to go through what I did,” she said.

When she had a break she said the most difficult part of the trip was missing her parents. She is still constantly worried that they could be taken away.

“Our children are on a constant emotional roller coaster. Their innocence is being robbed by putting them in a situation where they have to take on adult responsibilities,” said Dr. Silvia Herrera, an organizer with the PUENTE movement, who also testified.

On Friday, Figueroa got a chance to visit a few places she had always dreamed of seeing.  She could forget for a moment the reason why she was in Washington, and just be a kid, amused at seeing squirrels running around the grounds of Capitol Hill. Kathy ran up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, and stood on the spot where civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech.

Figueroa has many dreams. One of them is to stand in the very same place and give a speech about immigration. But for now, her most important dream is to never be separated from her parents again.

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.