For the members of the Catholic Coalition for Full Immigrant Rights who traveled to the Vatican at the end of March seeking Pope Francis’ intercession for an approval of a comprehensive immigration reform, the results of the trip exceeded their expectations.
The entire world learned about the stagnated process of immigration reform in the United States, they said, and the world also learned about the suffering of many families, especially children, whose parents face deportation.
But most importantly, concurred the immigrant advocates, the whole experience is having a spiritual impact on their lives.
“We came back transformed,” said Juan Jose Gutierrez, leader of Vamos Unidos USA. “We are not the same peoplewho took that plane on March 21.”
It actually all started, he added, with “that powerful blessing we received” on March 16 from Archbishop José Gomez, during the Religious Education Congress closing liturgy attended by thousands.
“My experience was beautiful,” said Alicia Reyes, a member of Hermandad Mexicana Hank Lacayo in Oxnard. She was the first person who held Jersey Vargas after the 10-year-old had the courage to defy all obstacles and get closer to Pope Francis on March 26 — a day before the pope met privately with President Barack Obama — and in a blink of an eye she narrated her story as a child of a parent who at that time was facing deportation, and asked him for his support.
“When security put her in my hands the girl grabbed me with thick tears running down her cheeks and it was beautiful,” Reyes recounted. “She was sobbing, her heart was beating and all of us started crying.”
That, they said, was the culmination of their mission, and symbolized they had accomplished their goal.
“I always felt touched at the Vatican,” said Martha Ugarte, trip coordinator and chaperone of the two girls who joined the group representing millions of American children of undocumented parents.
The experience has helped her slowly regain confidence in the Catholic Church, she said. She considers herself “very religious, but lately I had been away from the Church, but was always seeking for ways to come back.
“There is always a longing to come back to the Church when you have been a close member and have had that close relationship with God.”
Pope Francis has renewed her hope, she said. “The way he treated Jersey is precisely who he is: very subtle and profound.”
A ‘sensitive pope’
After years of working with struggling immigrant families such as the Vargases, and learning of many more children who suffer for the absence of their deported or incarcerated parents due to lack of papers, Ugarte came up with the idea of having the children write letters to this “sensitive pope.”
Once the children, who receive services at Hermandad Mexicana in Panorama City, started writing their letters, there was no going back.
Their simple yet profound messages broke hearts. Wrote 15-year-old Karla Perez, the only American citizen in her family of five:
“I don’t know what I would do without my family. All my family members are immigrants from Mexico. My sister is in a wheelchair and she needs medical help, but she can’t get the medical help she needs because they don’t have their legal documents.”
Guadalupe Gonzalez, another 15-year-old whose father was deported to his native Mexico, submitted this:
“I hope you help us because I know the feeling of getting separated from a parent, my dad. It could be the worst feeling you can experience in life. I was not able to see him ever again and I will never get to see him anymore because he has passed away on Oct. 26, 2013.”
These and other testimonies came to Ugarte’s mind at the March 26 general audience in St. Peter’s Square, and fired her determination to ask Pope Francis to include immigration reform in his agenda with President Obama.
“At some point during the general audience I saw clearly that we wouldn’t get closer to the pope, so I told Jersey that she would have to do it representing the group,” said Ugarte.
As it has been reported worldwide, the girl finally made it to the front after three tries.
The activists had attended the pope’s Angelus. When Alicia Flores, from Oxnard’s Hermandad Mexicana Hank Lacayo, heard Pope Francis talk about a merciful God, “it gave me peace and tranquility; I felt the Holy Spirit and I knew at that moment that our visit would be successful.”
“It was marvelous at St. Peter’s Square,” added participant Martha Moreno de Jordan of that rainy day. “All the tiredness was worth it, the rain and cold was worth it, because it was important that the world learn about our fight for immigration.”
“St. Peter’s Square was full, so to be able to see the pope at a short distance and receive his blessing and see him speak with Jersey was impactful,” said 24-year-old Susana Covarrubias, who has grown up in Oxnard seeing immigrant youth like her suffer the absence of one or both parents.
“It opened people’s eyes regarding immigration reform. And being able to connect with the Catholic Church in this movement is very touching,” she added, fighting back tears.
‘It’s magical, miraculous’
“Never in my life I thought that, as an activist, I would go to the Vatican and be a short distance from the pope so that he could support us with immigration reform,” said Laura Padilla, leader of the Club de Acapulque√±os, an organization that advocates for undocumented born in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.
“My faith has strengthened. When a work is done in harmony, there’s an interior force that surges. It’s magical, miraculous.”
Padilla, a working single mother who trying to bring her only son to the U.S., created the chant, “¬°Papa migrante tu ayuda es importante! (Migrant Pope, we need your support!) that the activists spread during their stay through the Vatican’s plaza.
“Immigrants,” she pointed out, “are not only marginalized people, but also educated women and men who are seeking a better life for their families.”
“This group of 16 people is very fortunate,” said Vamos Unidos’ Gutierrez. “We had a privilege that not many people in the world have. This wasn’t about material pleasure. It was a result of a deep spirituality combined with a political issue.
“I feel transformed. I feel that we were touched by something different, something I’m still processing. I’m still feeling something moving inside.”
Francisco Moreno, head of the Confederation of Mexican Organizations, whose wife converted to Catholicism three years ago, agreed.
“I’ve always been Catholic, because of my parents, but then you distance yourself from Church due to work, or other reasons,” he said. “I admire Pope Francis a lot because he’s very charismatic, and he has returned our faith. He paid attention, and for us that was a great accomplishment.”
Gloria Saucedo, a longtime leader of Hermandad Mexicana and parishioner of Mary Immaculate in Pacoima, did not travel with the group, but helped coordinate several fundraisers so the two girls could travel to Rome.
“We are Catholics,” she said, “and Catholics in the U.S. are suffering, so we need support of people with power — and who has more power than the pope?”
Archbishop José Gomez, she added, “has been an angel for us. He received us, he has paid attention, and his heart has been moved by the situations of families, especially undocumented families.” The response from the archbishop and the pope, said Saucedo, has resulted in “a happiness of the spirit, telling us that we’re on a good path.Since that Sunday in Anaheim, I have felt something different.”