BERKELEY -- The speaker getting the loudest cheers from the 200 or so people at an evening community forum on immigration reform Thursday at the Berkeley Adult School wasn't even in the room -- at least physically.
Barred from returning home to Berkeley, Rodrigo Guzman, 9, spoke from Mexico via a Skype video hookup.
"We were having a good life over there, said Rodrigo, who had lived in Berkeley since he was 2. "But all of a sudden ... my life turned around. We're having a hard time over here."
Life changed for the Guzmans when, returning to Berkeley from a Christmas visit to Mexico, the family was stopped in the Houston airport, told by federal agents that their visas were expired and deported to Mexico.
With the help of his Jefferson Elementary School fourth grade classmates and a few parents, Rodrigo has become something of a poster child for immigration reform, representing the 11 million undocumented people across the country.
At the invitation of U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, several Jefferson School classmates will travel to Washington, D.C., in May to lobby for Rodrigo.
First taking a moment to wave at his Skyped-in friend, Jefferson School student Kyle Kuwahara, 9, spoke at the Thursday forum, which was part of the annual Berkeley Celebrates Cesar Chavez event.
"It's our time to stand up like Cesar Chavez ... and fight for Rodrigo's rights," Kuwahara said.
Berkeley Councilman Jesse Arreguin, a son and grandson of farmworkers, helped organize the event. He said Chavez inspired him to fight for justice and immigrant rights.
"For far too long, our undocumented sisters and brothers have been living in the shadows," Arreguin said. "They are our neighbors, classmates and co-workers. They pay taxes, raise their kids here and contribute to the local economy. But despite the fact that they are embedded in our community, there is no way for them to become legal citizens."
Audience member "Elaina" was interviewed by this newspaper but asked to use a pseudonym for her protection as she told the story of her illegal entry into the United States from Mexico five years ago.
Frustrated because she couldn't earn more than $5 a day to help her family, Elaina paid a man to take her across the border. "Walking in the darkness was dangerous," she said. She was afraid of her guide, whom she described as "rough" and high on marijuana.
Today, Elaina works as a nanny, loves her job, owns a car and has many friends. But she's afraid each day that police will arrest her as she drives without a license to her job in Lafayette. And she longs to see her aging mother but cannot visit Mexico without being barred from coming back.
Blanca Zepeda, an undocumented UC Berkeley senior who has lived in the United States since she was 11, is in a better position.
"Here in California, we're really privileged to have the California Dream Act" because it gives students access to financial aid, she told the audience.
Zepeda is able to take advantage of President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows some undocumented immigrants ages 16 to 31 to work and obtain driver's licenses. The program, however, has a two-year limit, and leaves these immigrants in a state of uncertainty.
Maria Echaveste, of the Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley's law school and former deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, spoke about her youth picking strawberries, tomatoes and "yes, even cotton."
Calling on people to fight for immigration reform and for better schools and health care, Echaveste said, "What makes me believe we could do this is just looking at this room, with all the different colors, different backgrounds, different languages, that we are united in working for justice, in working for change. I'm so glad to be part of the Berkeley community."