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Prayer answered: Girl, 10, goes to Vatican and meets Pope Francis

By Michael Martinez and Jaqueline Hurtado, CNN
updated 11:13 PM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Pope Francis pats Jersey Vargas on the head and blesses her during her trip to the Vatican this week.
Pope Francis pats Jersey Vargas on the head and blesses her during her trip to the Vatican this week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jersey Vargas, 10, travels to the Vatican with family and church members
  • She gets lucky and actually meets Pope Francis
  • She urges immigration reform and seeks help for her father facing deportation
  • Pope meets with President Obama the next day, when they talk about such reforms

(CNN) -- The 10-year-old American girl went to the Vatican on a prayer of maybe, just maybe, meeting the Pope this week to deliver an important message.

Her prayer was answered, against all odds.

But for a while, Jersey Vargas' pilgrimage seemed doomed when a bystander pushed the little girl in a pink hat out of the way as the Pope approached a Vatican grandstand filled with supplicants and the faithful.

Jersey wept.

President Obama meets the Pope
U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Francis exchange gifts in the Pope's private library at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27. It was their first-ever meeting. U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Francis exchange gifts in the Pope's private library at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27. It was their first-ever meeting.
President Obama meets Pope Francis
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"I had to get through a fence, and I was waiting for a long time," said the 10-year-old girl from Panorama City, California, near Los Angeles. "But when Pope Francis was getting near me, there was a woman who pushed me because she didn't want me there because Pope Francis was coming near. So I started to cry because when she pushed me, it did hurt."

A Good Samaritan saw the weeping child and gave her a front-row position to see Pope Francis.

It worked.

Pope Francis barely saw Jersey standing eye-high at a white-draped railing. He approached her. He touched her head. He blessed her.

The family now has photographs of the extraordinary encounter between their small daughter and the people's Pope, who's increasingly shown a penchant to enter a crowd and mingle.

It was then that Jersey delivered a message that she had carried for more than 6,300 miles.

"I told him, 'Please help my family because we are suffering and my dad is suffering deportation and it's not fair. Other children are suffering because their parents are getting separated,'" Jersey recounted.

She was referring to how U.S. immigration policy -- a vexing issue that has left Congress polarized and gridlocked about how to reform it -- breaks apart families by deporting parents who are undocumented immigrants while allowing their U.S.-born children to remain in the country, left in the care of relatives or on their own.

Her message on Wednesday just happened to be delivered as President Barack Obama was about to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican. In fact, the two leaders discussed immigration reform on Thursday, though no formal agreements were made, the Vatican said.

Jersey even gave the Pope a simple gift during their chance meeting.

The offering was a cloth napkin, embroidered with an image of two birds, made by Jersey's mother.

President Barack Obama laughs as he speaks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27. Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has had a formal audience with the pope. President Barack Obama laughs as he speaks with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, March 27. Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has had a formal audience with the pope.
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Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the Roman Catholic Church's 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. The first pontiff from Latin America was also the first to take the name Francis. It was a sign of maverick moves to come. Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the Roman Catholic Church's 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. The first pontiff from Latin America was also the first to take the name Francis. It was a sign of maverick moves to come.
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The birds represented her mother and father. Also embroidered on it was a legend: "Nest of Love," it said.

But that nest isn't complete because her father faces deportation.

"Pope Francis had it in his hand," she said of the napkin. "I told him about my family, and that's when he blessed me and touched my head."

The girl was flanked by chaperones and fellow members of a group called Hermandad Mexicana (Mexican Brotherhood), which trekked to the Vatican to bring attention to U.S. immigration reform efforts. To get the Argentina-born Pope's attention, they carried a banner that stated in Spanish: "Dear Pope Francis, Help us legalize our parents."

Lola Vargas, Jersey's mother, said she's so happy that her daughter was able to talk to the Pope.

"She told me what happened and what she told the Pope. I am so proud of her and she represents other kids who are in the same situation," the mother said.

Jersey's father, Mario Vargas, 43, was arrested in Blount County, Tennessee, for driving under the influence last September, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. He was later convicted of the charge, officials said.

At the time, Mario Vargas was working a construction job, said family attorney Alex Galvez.

The father was then transferred to Louisiana because there was no ICE detention center in Tennessee.

"The police took him into custody and forgot about him for two months," Galvez said, "He was recently turned into ICE when the police filed the deportation proceedings two weeks ago."

Galvez said he spoke to the judge a week ago and presented the family's situation. The judged asked for the family to post bail of $15,000 but the family's attorney was able to reduce the bond to $5,000.

Galvez said Jersey's father was released on bail Friday, but the family still faces a legal battle in his ongoing deportation proceedings. Galvez hopes to transfer his case to Los Angeles and said Mr. Vargas will be returning home with his family this weekend.

Jersey's visit was part of a campaign where 11 immigration activists, plus some relatives, traveled to Rome hoping to talk to Pope Francis and ask him to speak to Obama about immigration reform.

Doris Benavides of the Los Angeles Archdiocese said Archbishop Jose H. Gomez has been a big supporter of children like Jersey and their crusade for reform.

Earlier this year Gomez relayed more than 1,000 letters to Pope Francis from children whose families members were facing deportation or were deported.

"Archbishop Gomez met Jersey at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels and thinks she is poised and articulate and has never met anyone like her," said Benavides.

Gomez helped the group by sending a letter to the Vatican requesting 17 tickets for the group, so they could have a viewing space Wednesday outside the Vatican, Benavides said. The 17 tickets were granted. But Jersey was lucky enough that she was able to get very close and deliver her message.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese believes that this visit to Rome will open a dialogue on how important immigration reform is.

"Jersey's story will help see the suffering caused in families by a broken immigration system," said Benavides.

The archbishop also posted a comment on his Facebook page. "Please keep praying for Jersey and for all the families who are suffering because of our broken immigration system," he said.

Jersey hopes that her messages will be heard.

"I am very proud of myself because I already accomplished my mission, that was to talk to him and to please stop deportations because the kids are suffering," she said.

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