Last September, I was one of 100 women who walked 100 miles from an immigration detention facility in York County, Penn., to Washington, D.C., inspired by Pope Francis’s message of compassion toward immigrants. This month, as Pope Francis visits the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time, we will walk again, hopeful for a new opportunity to humanize the public dialogue on immigration and reflect on where U.S. policies fail to uphold our shared values.
When Pope Francis visited the U.S., he reminded us that as a nation, we must protect the most vulnerable among us. His presence and message, and the acts of courage and sacrifice made by immigrant women and girls during his visit, opened up a new conversation about immigrants in America. Pope Francis pressed our elected leaders, including Congress and President Barack Obama, to welcome and protect immigrants, especially children, fleeing poverty and violence.
These are women like Ana Cañuenguez, who walked eight days in September to greet Pope Francis. Ana fled from violence in El Salvador 13 years ago and went back in 2011 to bring her two young children. Together they crossed the U.S-Mexico border by foot, but they got lost in the desert for three days, barely making it out alive. She walked from Pennsylvania to Washington D.C. wearing the same shoes she wore to cross the desert.
While millions across America were moved by our stories and Pope Francis’s message of compassion, over the last five months, conditions for migrants and refugees have worsened. Immigrants in the U.S., both documented and undocumented, are facing violence by vigilantes emboldened by hateful, anti-immigrant political rhetoric from several presidential candidates. Governors and legislators across the country are pursuing policies that criminalize and deny basic services to undocumented immigrants. Refugee women and children fleeing violence continue to be jailed. And immigrant communities are under siege, facing early morning raids conducted by the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, programs to provide relief from deportation for many undocumented immigrants are held up in the courts.
This week, Ana told me: “If I could return to this place where I had fought to keep my children alive, it would mean reliving that moment. The same way I fought for our lives in the desert, I will continue fighting here in this country with my children, to keep us together.”
Ana and millions of immigrant women like her are our focus as we cross the border. We will be joined by Texans from across the state, and women from across the country who believe that our nation should aspire to welcome refugees and treat immigrants with dignity and respect. We will meet with women in Juarez, pray for immigrants at the cathedral dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and then journey north, reflecting on our own migration stories and the courage of women willing to take tremendous risks to protect their families.
A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey. On this journey we will call into being a world where we hold each other up and care for one another, regardless of where we came from. While deeply rooted in our faith, welcoming migrants is a value our nation aspires to, as embodied by the Statue of Liberty. Engraved on her statue are the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We must continue to carry her torch.