Pope Francis returned to North America Feb. 12, nearly six months after his September sojourn to the United States. Initially, in September, he had planned to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. in a show of solidarity with immigrants. Though time constraints prevented it, that didn’t stop him from speaking forcefully of the need to respect and care for immigrants.
This time, Pope Francis is staying in Mexico. But 100 women crossed the border together into Mexico on Feb. 16 in order to underscore that very point about immigration reform.
“When we’re discussing legislation or the impact of legislation, it is very easy to lose sight of the people that are involved,” said Claudia Taylor, who works with the Labor Justice Committee and was part of the march from El Paso into Ciudad Juarez.
“We’re talking about peoples’ lives.”
We Belong Together, an organization of women advocating for immigration reform, organized the walk, which is a sequel to the 100 Women, 100 Miles walk that took place when Pope Francis visited Washington, D.C.
As the name suggests, 100 women traveled 100 miles together, walking from a detention facility in Pennsylvania all the way to the nation’s capital over the course of nine days last fall.
Andrea Cristina Mercado is the co-chair of We Belong Together. She helped organize as well as walked in both the September march and the more recent, shorter one on Feb. 16.
“Our members spend a lot of time on the front lines of change, protesting, expressing their anger at the system,” Mercado said.
“But when a loved one is put into deportation proceedings or you lose someone, in those times of pain, we often turn to our faith.”
That’s why the women of We Belong Together wanted to greet Pope Francis, even if from afar, when he came to the U.S. in September.
They had tried to arrange a meeting with Pope Francis, and — even though it didn’t work out — they felt encouraged by the results of their walk.
They had hoped to “humanize the public dialogue on immigration,” Mercado said, and judging by the reactions they received on the road to D.C., that’s precisely what happened.
“As we were walking through small towns … and even through the city of Baltimore, people would stop us on the streets and give us hugs or go buy us water,” Mercado said.
“It was interesting to go through rural towns because I think that’s where we anticipated that maybe there would be people not wishing us well. So it was interesting to see what kind of support that we got from people waving to us from their front porches.”
At one point, a farmer’s goat even joined the march and accompanied some of the children, who petted it as they walked.
Another highlight for Mercado last September was when a woman heard about the 100 Women, 100 Miles walk on the radio. She came to the church in Baltimore where they were staying.
“She brought a flower for each walker and on each flower she had stapled an inspirational message.”
Besides raising awareness about the need for reform, the walk also served as a healing experience for the participants.
“At one point in the walk … we were walking through really beautiful country in Pennsylvania. [One] woman [who was undocumented] was saying how this was the first time she was enjoying this country. She came to this country to work. Her life was working and providing for her family and advocating for justice, but she had never really taken a vacation or time to really enjoy the country.”
While the Feb. 16 walk from El Paso to Juarez and back was fewer than 10 miles, it took on added significance because the group of walkers drew attention specifically to the border. Taylor, who is an El Paso resident, works to recoup wages stolen from immigrants by dishonest employers. In addition to the dangers that undocumented workers already face, the presence of the border “makes them a bit more vulnerable, especially in the cases of labor trafficking and exploitation,” she said.
“Because of our proximity to the border it’s almost as if there’s an endless supply of cheap labor right across the border just waiting to be brought over. That complicates things for workers who are on this side who want to assert their rights.”
Because these workers are their families’ breadwinners, “if they speak up they risk losing their jobs.”
“The only option is endure the abuse.”
Taylor hopes that the 100 women walk and the Pope’s visit will not only change national discourse about immigrants, but also serve to unite and empower immigrants themselves.
“I would love to see the fear in the immigrant community reduced,” Taylor said.
“Because of the recent Atlanta raids, many people are more reluctant to speak to the media and get their stories heard.”
That is precisely what Juana Flores is aiming to do by walking to Juarez.
“I want to see my sisters who have been deported and bring some comfort to them and carry the message that we continue the fight,” Flores said.
Like Mercado, she participated in the 100 mile walk to D.C., an experience in which her “spirituality was born again.” Getting to be near Pope Francis is a vivid reminder of when Flores got to see Pope St. John Paul II up close when she was a nun.
Though no longer a nun, “I continue to profess the Catholic religion,” Flores said.
“And for me Pope Francis’ presence in Mexico is very important during the current crisis of violence and narcopolitics. We continue asking the pope as the leader of the Catholic Church to keep raising the issue of immigration, to keep raising the message when talking to politicians that all human beings have the right to live with dignity and freedom, that we live with the hope of a more just world.”
Pope Francis’ Feb. 17 celebration of mass on the border seems designed to send precisely that message, says Christopher Hale of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
“Clearly in Pope Francis’ trip to the border . . . he’s communicating his desire that we be a society that welcomes and includes immigrants,” Hale said.
“The current immigration policy in the United States failed to do that.”
But Hale is hoping that the Francis Effect will mobilize change.
“While this trip is thousands of miles away from Washington D.C., the only appropriate way to respond to this trip is in Washington D.C.,” he said.
“What’s happening here at the border will hopefully translate into increased action and movement on immigration reform in the nation’s capital.”
The legislative consequences of Pope Francis’ visit are still to be seen, though Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has vowed to block immigration reform until 2017.
Nevertheless, for Andrea Cristina Mercado, who describes her relationship with Catholicism as “fraught,” the Francis Effect is already real.
“He is a really holy, spiritual leader,” she said.
“[Pope Francis] drew me back into the church.”