Why 100 women walked 100 miles

Story highlights

  • Ai-jen Poo: 100 immigrant women walked from Pennsylvania to D.C. during Pope's visit to urge leaders to turn Pope's message to action
  • She says the women want a pathway to legal status in the country where they now labor; to be free to be proud members of society

Ai-jen Poo is the co-director of Caring Across Generations, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and author of "The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America" (The New Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On Tuesday, I set out on a 100-mile journey from an immigrant detention facility in central Pennsylvania to Washington with 100 immigrant girls and women -- ages 4 to 73 -- to welcome Pope Francis to the United States.

Ai-Jen Poo
The women who joined are like women we see every day: working as nannies and caregivers for the elderly or as janitors in our office buildings or serving our food in the neighborhood restaurant. Less visible to us is the reality that some of the women have deportation orders pending. Others have waited for over a decade to see their children. Still others have loved ones in detention.
We announced the pilgrimage through immigrant community organizations, inviting women to join us in echoing Pope Francis' message of compassion toward migrants and refugees, in light of a mounting, global refugee crisis and the ongoing plight of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States living and working without a pathway to legal status.
Day one of the "100 women, 100 miles" pilgrimage--which stepped off Tuesday, Sept. 22 from an immigrant detention facility in central Pennsylvania en route to Washington, D.C.--to welcome Pope Francis.
Women from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, living in over a dozen states around the country, raised funds from their churches, co-workers and friends to participate.
Over a week of walking, I learned the stories of many of the women. They told of risks that they have taken out of love for their families, from crossing borders to working in the shadow economy, and expressed a deep appreciation for Pope Francis' message.
On the first day, I walked with Silvia, a 47-year old immigrant from Mexico. She has worked as a housekeeper in Seattle for 15 years. Her employers include executives at Amazon and Boeing.
She enjoys cleaning houses, transforming daily disorder into a pristine place someone can call home. Each house presents a different challenge of sequencing and strategy, depending on the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and pets.
Silvia is proud that her cleaning jobs paid for her daughter's college education. Her daughter's dream is to become an immigration lawyer. Silvia was born and raised Catholic, and although she doesn't make it to church every Sunday, she prays every day.
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When I asked her what she prays for, she said, "To see my mom again. And for courage, so that I can be strong for my daughter."
For Silvia, Pope Francis is the embodiment of courageous moral leadership for these times. He brings sweet relief from the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has become a staple feature of our political conversation. He has said, "We must respond to the globalization of migration with the globalization of charity and cooperation."
It was Pope Francis' message that inspired the women to walk the 100 miles as a symbol of the strength and endurance it takes to care for your family, to love and to assert your dignity while risking being reported to immigration customs enforcement by an employer or even a neighbor
Silvia, for example, lacks legal status in this country, and has been separated from her mother for 15 years. If she leaves to visit her mother, she could be separated from her daughter indefinitely. Her mother's sight has begun to fail, and her legs have lost their strength. Silvia's dream is to see her again, before her mother loses her mental functions. In a voice overcome with sorrow, Silvia told me that her mother turned 85 while we were on our pilgrimage.
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Silvia walked at the front of the pilgrimage, to keep the pace of the group and look out for any dangers ahead. She wore a fluorescent crossing-guard vest for visibility and a fisherman's hat to shade her face from the sun.
As we journeyed from town to city, through heat and rain, the determination of the women inspired passersby to welcome us and cheer us on. Some ran after us to bring us water; some changed their plans for the day and joined us; and others blocked traffic for us, so that we might cross in safety. Courage finds courage, in a virtuous cycle.
At about 4 p.m. Tuesday, September 22, we finally arrived at the entrance to the Basilica in Washington, where Pope Francis would give Mass the following day. We had been walking in silence for 30 minutes, reflecting on why we had made the journey. As we approached, the choir that would be performing for Pope Francis' Mass began its rehearsal; the voices of angels provided the soundtrack for our arrival.
Silvia led us into the bright afternoon sun as we ascended the steps to the Basilica. At the top of the steps, 100 women began to sing. We looked around at one another. Our sunglasses and sunhats could not obscure the flow of tears. We had arrived.
As we stood in the afternoon light, we prayed for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in this country's shadows. We sang for their suffering -- not knowing when they will see their loved ones again -- or whether they will at all. We sang for the long hours of caring for other families for pay that often leaves them unable to care for their own. Hundreds of supporters who came to welcome us, joined in.
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Sandra, from Florida, led us in a song that declared "Solid as a rock, rooted like a tree, we are here, standing strong, in our rightful place."
Later Silvia, along with 49 other women who had walked 100 miles, sat and listened as Pope Francis addressed Congress. He talked about being the son of immigrants and reminded members of Congress that this nation is the "home of the brave."
They looked for signs that Congress would find the courage to realize this aspiration and take action to alleviate the fear and insecurity that haunt the lives of the 11 million undocumented people for whom they had walked.
Several days later, the Pope spoke at Independence Mall in Philadelphia about immigration, and the women were listening as he gave a voice to stories that might as well have been theirs.
He said: "Among us today are members of America's large Hispanic population, as well as representatives of recent immigrants to the United States. I greet all of you with particular affection! Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. ... By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within."
While they await action from the country's leaders, the women have decided on their next action: they have committed to walk and pray, on the 11th day of every month, for 11 months, to inspire others like them to keep their courage, until we can truly become the land of the free.