WASHINGTON — Last year, when they heard Pope Francis would be addressing immigration on his first trip to the U.S., a group of 100 domestic workers, including many immigrants and women of faith, decided they would make a religious pilgrimage, including visits to churches and prayer circles, from Pennsylvania to Washington, to hear what the pontiff had to say.
A year after his historic visit, many of them returned to Washington to keep the pope’s message of honoring the dignity of migrants alive, said Marzena Zukowska, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
The organization is one of the groups that coordinated an anniversary march and vigil Sept. 16 from the Supreme Court to the White House, calling for an end to deportations and detention centers.
Some of those gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court said faith and their belief in God is what helps them face a daily fear — of being deported, or of having a husband or children taken away — until politicians find a solution that can help them.
America Carbajal, a Catholic domestic worker from Colorado who was in Washington in mid-September for the events, said staying close to God while organizing prayer vigils at immigration detention centers and leaning on others who want to help and being of help to those seeking comfort is what keeps her going.
This is especially true, she said, because there doesn’t seem to be an easy or imminent fix for those who do not have proper documentation to be in the U.S.
A Pew Research Center study released on Sept. 20 reported 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants were in the U.S. in 2014, a number unchanged since 2009. Congress and the president both have said the immigration system is “broken” but can’t agree on what action to take.
The pope, on his Sept. 24, 2015, visit to Congress at the U.S. Capitol, said: “In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”
He reminded those gathered that the world faces “a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, 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. Is this not what we want for our own children?”
Traveling north for a better life is exactly what Lenka Mendoza felt she had to do when she left with her family their native Peru.
Now that she’s here, said Mendoza while on the steps outside the Supreme Court of the United States, her family is a mix of children born in the U.S., children with residency under the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act, and parents in the country without legal permission.
“We want to touch the heart of politicians,” Mendoza said. “People come here escaping hunger, violence. They come here seeking help and some, instead, find a jail.”
That’s immoral, she said, and urged politicians to reflect on the plight of migrants and ask themselves what they would do if faced with similar circumstances.
On his visit, the pope urged Congress and others to reflect on something similar: “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,” he said.
“To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
Having the pope in Washington a year ago was an “opportunity to change the debate to people and (those) who are affected,” said Zukowska.
That’s why it was important to keep that memory and its message alive, she said. The pilgrimage, in 2015 and this year, took the 100 women on a 100-mile trek, from Pennsylvania to Washington, where they visited Catholic churches, as well as Unitarian, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches.
Sister Diane Roche, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart, accompanied the women on the last part of their pilgrimage in Washington. She suggested the people consider the Gospel, examine their fears and also study Catholic social teaching to examine the situation from the perspective of faith.
“How can you not understand hardship?” she asked. “These folks are in this country living the same narrative of (previous) generations. What a brave and amazing thing to do.”