THE BLOG
09/03/2013 01:29 pm ET

Immigrants Take Big Risks to Get Their Stories Out

Last year the Federal Government deported 409,849 people, including 83,846 parents of U.S. citizen children. With the government breaking apart families at a rate unseen in American history, many parents and children are in a day-to-day struggle to hold their families together.

Millions of people like Adriana Flores, a 41-year old mother from Merced, California who's lived in the United States for 20 years, are afraid every time they leave their home that they will be separated from their spouses and children.

Yet despite the risks, more and more immigrants like Adriana are stepping forward to tell their stories. It is a reminder that throughout American history, social change has come when people who have the most on the line, have the courage and the opportunity to step forward, tell their own stories, take enormous risks and lead the next chapter in the movement for freedom in our country.

Yesterday, Adriana and fourteen other women and men woke up at 3:30am to walk the last leg of a 21-day Pilgrimage for a Pathway to Citizenship through the Central Valley in California. They have walked 285 miles from Sacramento to Bakersfield to build support for immigration reform in the most conservative region in the state. They have been joined by more than 12,000 people of faith and have participated in 15 public events during their journey.

Some of the Pilgrims - as they call themselves - are undocumented parents, others are young people whose parents and siblings are at-risk of deportation. As I walked with them on the final day, I understood that while each person walked for different reasons and loved-ones, all walked to tell the story of the human cost of our current immigration policies.

Like the famous 1966 National Farm Worker Association's pilgrimage led by Cesar Chavez (that went the opposite direction from Delano to Sacramento), this pilgrimage for citizenship was a fundamentally religious activity - a long journey with a spiritual and moral purpose. It was organized by PICO California, a network of 18 faith-based organizations and 450 religious congregations.

Catholic Bishop Jaime Soto blessed the Pilgrims as they left Sacramento. Each day they prayed for families that have been separated, and for children who fear losing their parents. Many times the prayers were led by Iman Shakeel Syed - Executive Director of the Islamic Shura Council, a federation of mosques and Muslim organizations in Southern California. Adriana carried a large image of the Virgen de Guadalupe each day, and prayed as she and others walked.

The Pilgrimage also had a political purpose. The Pilgrims walked through seven congressional districts, including those of four House Republicans, ending in the district of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy. A highlight was a 1,000 person public event with Republican House Member Jeff Denham, who reiterated his support for a path to citizenship, and agreed to press House leaders for a vote this fall.

Public response along the way showed very strong support for immigration reform and a path to citizenship in these conservative communities. As they walked through the August heat, the Pilgrims received almost no negative comments, and often had farm workers and local residents come up to them to talk about the prospects for reform this year. The local TV and print media in the Central Valley produced day after day of positive media coverage of the pilgrimage.

The path to citizenship that the Pilgrims are calling for is backed by some House Republicans in the Central Valley, those who face competitive races, or who have less seniority - people like Congressmen Jeff Denham and David Valadao. They are in tune with their districts, where business leaders, faith communities, and a substantial majority of voters, including Republican voters, support immigration reform for a mix of political and practical reasons. They recognize that providing a path to citizenship for the state's 2.5 million undocumented immigrants would be a big boost to the economy. And they are doing the political work necessary to make Latinos part of their electoral coalition.

Now that 24 House Republicans have come out in support of a path to citizenship, the bigger challenge is moving House leaders like GOP House Whip Kevin McCarthy, who faces a choice between responding to the needs of his constituents and advancing his national political ambitions.

On the plane to Bakersfield I saw McCarthy and asked him whether he was coming to the final event of the Pilgrimage, a 2,000-person town hall meeting at the Fox Theatre in downtown Bakersfield. He said no. He said that a lot of the groups working on the immigration issue were from outside his district. I passed him my phone, to show him the long list of congregations in his district sending people to the meeting - so that he could see that the event would include lots of his constituents, as well as people of faith from across the state.

It makes sense that people from both inside and outside Bakersfield would want to give McCarthy a piece of their mind on immigration. As the #3 leader in the House, he will be mapping out House Republican strategy on immigration, and will determine whether or not there will be a vote on legislation that includes a path to citizenship this fall. With support growing for reform among rank-and-file Republicans in districts with significant Latino voting population, it is likely that a majority of the House would vote yes on an earned path to citizenship, if given a chance to vote.

As we landed, I was thinking that the real contradiction is not that McCarthy is under pressure from groups outside his districts, but how someone representing a district that has so much to gain economically and socially from reform, might let a historic opportunity to fix the immigration system slip through his fingers.

The Pilgrims have vowed to continue to press McCarthy, along with other Republicans and Democrats, to support a path to citizenship and oppose Arizona-style enforcement legislation like the SAFE Act, which would criminalize immigrants and sharply increase federal spending on immigrant detention centers. In Bakersfield, they will begin daily prayer vigils at McCarthy's office.

Standing outside McCarthy's district office, at the end of the Pilgrimage, Andrew Vue, a 26 year old from Sacramento, told me that although he was tired, he wanted to keep walking. Andrew's father and mother were born in Laos and immigrated to the United States in 1982 after walking from Laos to Thailand on their road to freedom. When I asked Andrew when he was going back home to Sacramento, he said with tears in his eyes that he was thinking of staying for a while to keep connected with the Pilgrims from Bakersfield he'd walked with.

Funny how what seems like a huge sacrifice - walking for three weeks in the blazing heat - can turn into a precious gift.

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