Our Pilgrimage for Immigrant Rights Remains Strong in the Face of Adversity

By Raunel Urquiza There was a lot going on last month with the pope’s visit to DC. The pope addressed a joint session of Congress and spoke on several issues, including immigration which is very important to me. Before Pope Francis arrived in DC I had the honor to welcome the 100 immigrant women who had just finished an incredible walking journey. They started their pilgrimage at Pennsylvania’s York County Prison and ended outside of the White House for a prayer vigil.  The group’s pilgrimage was a visual for people to understand why there is a need for immigration reform. Each woman in the pilgrimage had a story and a prayer. The walk was important to me because it reminded me of how tough situations create solidarity. I joined in for the last three miles here in DC. To my surprise I saw people I knew from Chicago marching with the women too. This was a moment when I realized how close our Latino community really is, and how our community’s greatest strength is our faith and solidarity.

The stories my parents share about their time here in the United States is a testament of how hard it is to integrate into a new country and adapt new norms. Especially when you are limited to working minimum wage jobs and busy raising a family while living in economic uncertainty, and wanting more for your children, but being unfamiliar with how to navigate through the school system. My father tells me about the first meal he shared in the United States with my mother. They ate beans because that was all they could afford. They had one pot in their apartment and cooked beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner during their first month here.  They uprooted their lives from Mexico in search of a better life and financial stability. But life was hard here for them: The food was different, the language was different, and people weren’t always the most welcoming. I remember growing up in Chicago where English-speaking people looked down on us for speaking Spanish. I remember how uncomfortable it was to hear people blame immigrants for taking jobs or violence breaking out in neighborhoods.  People have harassed my family and I on the street for speaking Spanish, yelling “Immigrants are ruining this country!” Classmates have asked me if my dad was an “Alien from outer space.” At the same time, we have also experienced overwhelming support from school staff and organizations that gave us opportunities to succeed.

The pilgrimage before the pope’s visit made me reflect on my parents’ journey. The pilgrimage has given me a perspective on the immigrant journey to seek justice and dignity. The message is clear: We do this for our families. And for millions of undocumented people living in the United States live with the daily fear of deportation, it is even more important to help them keep their families together. Thousands of families have been broken apart by deportations. Thousands of families have come from around the world to find opportunities in the United States. My father is still working to become a citizen even though he has lived and worked more than half of his life in the United States.

Our family doesn’t own a car, so walking has been a part of my journey as long as I can remember. For Latino Catholics, like my family, pilgrimage is a big part of our faith, bringing reflection and meditation to the forefront. The spiritual message echoes through the people trapped in sites of human suffering, such as detention centers, and through the pope with his message of human dignity. Marginalized people will keep walking toward justice. We don’t have any alternative. This journey reminds me of the famous quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., “If you can't fly, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can't walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.”

Right now, there is litigation in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine the status of an executive order issued last November by President Obama that created initiatives to allow Dreamers and the undocumented parents of U.S. citizen and legal resident children to remain in the country.

I’m continuing my immigrant journey as an intern at the Center for Community Change, which is a member of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), the nation’s largest coalition of immigrant rights groups. FIRM groups will continue to press the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold President Obama’s executive actions that help immigrants.

The pilgrimage we are on for immigrant rights is physically exhausting, but the dedication of 100 women from all over the country walking 100 miles shows us that there is momentum in our movement and we can rise above all barriers.