‘I Ask For Dignity’: What Immigrant Women Hope To Achieve During The Pope’s U.S. Visit

CREDIT: ESTHER YU HSI LEE
CREDIT: ESTHER YU HSI LEE

SILVER SPRING, MD — One hundred women are ending a 100-mile walk from Pennsylvania to the White House in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to greet Pope Francis and to echo the pope’s message of dignity and compassion toward migrants.

Organized by the advocacy group “We Belong Together,” the group of women began their walk at the York Detention Center in Pennsylvania, where some of the family members of the women are currently being detained for potential deportation proceedings.

On Monday, the group of women ended the last leg of their journey at a church auditorium in Silver Spring, Maryland, where community members brought food for a potluck dinner. Seated around 18 tables, women laughed, cried, and shared their personal stories over plates of chicken, rice and beans, and chips and guacamole. Lifting their arms up high, women and community members chanted, “Si se puede!” and “100 women, 100 miles!” Other women shared their stories on stage, often tearing up while children came up to hug them.

Though they likely won’t meet Pope Francis during his U.S. visit, these women hope the pontiff will be inspired by their walk to talk about the plight of real people caught within the U.S. immigration system. In the past, the pope has stated that the globalization of migration requires a globalization of charity and cooperation, so the woman walking stated that “each step we take is another step closer to a world of dignity for migrants,” according to a press release.

ThinkProgress spoke with two women who took part in the 100-mile march, both of whom are personally affected by the country’s current immigration policies:

‘I would cry all the time.’

Amy Kele, 18 CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Amy Kele, 18 CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Amy Kele, 18, will start her freshman year at the University of Washington in two weeks, but she’s likely had a very different experience growing up than many of her peers.

Amy’s parents were prohibited from re-entering the United States after they traveled to their native Fiji for a Christmas wedding eight years ago, leaving behind a grandmother to take care of Amy and her three siblings. Amy and her siblings are undocumented, but are covered under President Obama’s 2012 executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants temporary legal presence and deportation relief for some undocumented immigrants. The program generally doesn’t allow international travel, so Amy and her family cannot visit her parents, who eventually moved to Canada.

It’s taken a difficult toll on our whole lives.

Amy is still torn up about her parents’ removal to this day. “It was hard for me because I would cry all the time about it,” Amy told ThinkProgress, tearing up in the process. “Even to this day, I get emotional and sad about it, but it’s more suppressed now. I would live my life going through the motions, but not taking the time to feel what I feel — it was very bottled up.”

Amy’s experience patterns the kind of emotional turmoil that many children go through after their parents have been deported. A recent Migration Policy Institute report found that children whose parents were deported, often are at greater risk for significant negative emotional and behavioral outcomes and experience more emotional harm, financial stress, and trauma.

“It’s taken a difficult toll on our whole lives, our whole family dynamic,” Amy said. “It’s been a struggle for our grandma who’s been the sole financial provider. We see [my parents] on Skype, but it’s not the same as being with them in person.”

Amy hopes that her participation in the walk will allow people to see that she “deserves to have the dignity that everyone else has as a human being.”

‘I ask for dignity.’

Ana Canuenguez CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Ana Canuenguez CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Ana Canuenguez, a mother to seven children, fled El Salvador 13 years ago to escape immense poverty and domestic violence. Since then, she has been working as a hotel housekeeper in Utah.

Canuenguez told ThinkProgress through a Spanish-language interpreter that she took part in the 100-mile march because she’s asking that “all immigrants be treated as human beings. I ask for dignity. I joined this pilgrimage because … we want [Pope Francis] to hear stories of immigrant women so that when he meets with people in the government, he will share our stories.”

I don’t want to imagine being permanently separated from her.

Four years ago, when two of her pre-teenage children made the trek from El Salvador to the United States, they were detained in Mexico for three months, causing Canuenguez to leave the U.S. to get them. They took a bus “as far as [we] could,” a train, and continued to walk north from Mexico. “When I tried to re-enter the United States with them, I got lost in the desert for three days. I had to call Border Patrol so that they can save us,” Canuenguez explained. “And that’s when I fell into the immigration system with my children.”

Canuenguez and two of her children have been fighting a deportation order since then, but she’s mostly afraid that two of her youngest kids — both U.S. citizens — would be left alone in the country if she gets deported. She said that her youngest daughter has called her every day for the past week while she was on the march to “keep count of how long I’ve been gone.”

“I don’t want to imagine being permanently separated from her because we’re always together.”