On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to shadow kids who were taking part in the “Keeping Families Together: Youth in Action” events on Capitol Hill as they made their way to various California and Washington state Congressional offices, speaking to staffers about how postponing comprehensive immigration reform tears apart families every day.
As we finished talking with one of Rep. Buck McKeon’s staffers, I introduced myself to a girl who looked like she was in high school. Her name was Brenda Ortigoza, she was a junior in high school and she lived with her mother and two younger sisters. She is active with the OneAmerica Vancouver Base Group in Washington state.
Brenda and I talked in between visits to the members’ offices. I asked about school, about if she was looking at colleges. I asked Brenda what she thought she wanted to study. She said she didn’t know, but she knew that she wanted to be a police officer so she could help people.
At the first couple of offices, Brenda didn’t say anything while the representative from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles spoke. At the third stop, the office of Rep. Ed Royce, we spoke to a staff member in the hall.
As the rather disappointing conversation wrapped up, Brenda came over to me and whispered, “Would it be okay if I told my story?” I nodded yes.
Brenda took a breath and stepped in front of the staffer. “Hi,” she said timidly, “would you mind if I told you my story?”
The staffer stiffened. “Okay.”
Brenda braced herself and told her story, quickly, to the man. That’s when I found out that Brenda’s dad had been deported to Mexico a year ago. Her mother and sisters could no longer afford to live in their house, so they were forced to move.
“It’s hard,” Brenda went on, not knowing what else to say. Her voice quivered and she nearly started crying. “It’s really hard, you know? This is an issue not just for adults. It affects children, too. It affects us. And there’s so many more like me who have had one or both parents deported. It’s just really hard,” she repeated. “I just wish you would tell them that—that this is a really important issue for us. Can you tell them?”
The staffer nodded and retreated to his office.
Brenda looked at me, still visibly shaken, trying to compose herself. “Was that okay?”
“That was great,” I told her. “You did a great job.”
Brenda’s story became more intricate as we continued on to another few offices. I found out more about her and her family as we walked, too. She was born in Los Angeles, but she and her family moved to Washington state. As she explained to one particularly understanding staffer, she was upset that her father wasn’t here for Thanksgiving and that she only gets to speak with him on the phone for a few minutes at a time.
“It’s worse for my younger sisters,” she explained as tears ran down her cheeks. “It makes me so sad to see them be sad.”
Brenda knows responsibility. She takes care of her youngest sister all the time. She goes to school. She knows she wants to go to college, and she has very concrete career aspirations. She’s even participating in an internship program for students pursuing a career in law enforcement.
And most recently, Brenda came to DC to participate in the week-long children’s immigration reform action. She had never been to any legislator’s office before.
She said that she was excited to be on the Hill because the corridors we walked and the rooms we entered were a part of American history. We were a part of American history—and Brenda loved that feeling. She couldn’t quite describe it, but I nodded because I knew how she felt. I feel that way whenever I’m at the Capitol, too.
When I had to leave, I told her and the rest of the group how brave I thought they were. Learning about Brenda, speaking with her personally, and listening to her tell her own painful story so many times brought the issue of immigration reform closer to me than it was before.
I’ll probably never see Brenda again, but I like to think that she will go on to college to pursue a career in law enforcement. I like to think that things will work out for her and her family, and that her father will come home soon.