The Slatest

The Little Girl’s Seemingly Spontaneous Meeting With the Pope Had Been Planned for a Year

Pope Francis greets Sophie after she ran towards him during a pa
Pope Francis greets Sophie after she ran towards him during a parade in Washington D.C, United States on September 23, 2015.

Photo by Esra Kaymak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

By Wednesday afternoon, everyone knew the name of the little girl in braids. By thwarting the papal security entourage, capturing His Holiness’s attention, and bounding up to hand him a gift and a hand-written letter, five-year-old Sophie Cruz had endeared herself to the nation. In response to her seemingly spontaneous gesture, the pope bestowed upon her a blessing and a kiss.

By now we know that what actually happened was a publicity stunt, orchestrated by several immigration rights groups including the Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition, which works to advance the rights of immigrants in Los Angeles. Those groups had planned out exactly how the details of this moment would unfold for nearly a year. Their goal was to deliver an “important message in the form of a little girl,” as Juan Jose Gutierrez of the coalition told The Associated Press. “We planned to do this from the moment we learned he was coming to the states.” (In fact, last year they performed a similar stunt with 10-year-old Jersey Vargas, who approached the pope in Rome and asked him to intercede on behalf of her detained father.)

Members of the coalition had traveled to Washington with Sophie and her father, Raul Cruz, a 36-year-old undocumented immigrant. If Sophie hadn’t been successful in Washington, they would have shuttled her to New York and then Philadelphia to try again. But she fulfilled her mission, presenting the pope with an impressively eloquent letter that began with the words, “I want to tell you that my heart is sad” and went on to intercede on behalf of the rights of immigrants and their children. “I have a right to live with my parents. I have a right to be happy. My dad works very hard in a factory galvanizing metals. Immigrants like my dad feed this country,” she told reporters.

Gutierrez insists that Sophie crafted her own letter, and that she wasn’t told what to say to reporters afterwards. “She didn’t have anyone coaching her,” Gutierrez told the AP. “She just spoke from her heart. It all came from her.” Cruz also gave the pope a yellow t-shirt with a message in Spanish asking Francis to “rescue DAPA,” Obama’s now-stalled program Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Permanent Residents, which if passed would let millions of undocumented immigrants to apply for permission to legally stay and work in the United States.

Sophie’s appeal to the pope was clearly meant to draw heartstrings. But just because it was a stunt, that doesn’t mean her message isn’t genuine. Her cause is one that this pope is receptive to: On Thursday, Pope Francis made a nearly hour-long speech before Congress calling for the U.S. to display greater openness to immigrants as well as refugees. He began by showing his solidarity with the plight of immigrants, acknowledging that he himself is the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina. “As the son of an immigrant family, I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,” he said. 

“On this continent … thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,” the pope continued. “Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”

An attorney who supports the coalition told Telemundo that it was hoping the pope’s address would “soften some hearts” when it comes to immigration reform. It remains to be seen whether any were softened.

See more of Slate’s coverage of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit.