MESA, AZ -- When Pope Francis makes his first visit to the United States later this month, Elva Patricia Bernal of Arizona said she hopes he’ll press for the release of mothers from detention centers and for immigration policies that keep families together.
“I think it’s not right for them to be in there,” she said of detained mothers. “They should be able to fight their cases from outside so they can be with their children and not be separated.”
Bernal, a Catholic from Mexico, has been living in Arizona without legal status for 32 years.
The mother of 6 is also among the more than 100 women who will set out on a 100-mile pilgrimage that will begin Sept. 15 at the York Detention Center in York, Pa., and end in Washington, D.C., where they'll hold a vigil just as Pope Francis arrives for his five-day visit to the U.S. on Sept. 22.
Bernal is flying into Pennsylvania on Monday to join the pilgrimage. The women are hoping to greet the pope and ensure their message of dignity and justice for immigrants is at the forefront of the pope’s conversations with lawmakers.
Pope Francis plans to address the issue of immigration on at least two stops of his visit to the U.S., including in New York where he is scheduled to meet with a group of refugees and immigrants, including some who are undocumented.
The Pope's first stop will be Sept. 23 at the White House where President Barack Obama and First lady Michelle Obama will welcome him during a ceremony. The following day, the Pope will address a joint meeting of Congress, something no other pontiff has ever done before.
Bernal said she is joining the pilgrimage “for all the mothers in detention and all the children separated from their mothers.” That includes her sister, Norma Bernal, who was arrested in front of her children last year after walking near train tracks in Phoenix. Bernal said her sister did not see the “No Trespassing” sign and was ultimately deported.
The mother of four came back to the U.S. to reunite with her children but was arrested at the border and taken to the Eloy Detention Center, located about 65 miles south of Phoenix. She spent a year there before she was freed on bond in February amid rallies and calls for her release.
Bernal took care of her sister’s children while she was detained. She recalled the trauma the children faced during the time they were separated from their mother.
“They were always quiet and sad,” she said. “They didn’t want to eat. They couldn’t concentrate well in school.”
Maria Cruz Ramirez and Maria Elena Apodaca, two undocumented mothers living in Arizona, will also take part in the pilgrimage. Ramirez said she wants to raise awareness of how immigration detention centers are harming families. Meanwhile, Apodaca said she hopes the pope will “help us and speak with the politicians about prioritizing families over political games.”
Immigrant rights advocates see an ally in Pope Francis, who has made helping immigrants one of the cornerstones of his papacy. His first major trip as head of the Catholic Church was to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where thousands of undocumented migrants died trying to cross the sea from Africa to reach Europe.
“We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery,” Pope Francis said after visiting Lampedusa in July 2013.
Last summer, Pope Francis called for an “urgent intervention” to welcome and protect minors who were traveling to the U.S. alone after fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. Most recently, he called on European governments and Catholic parishes there to open their doors to migrants, many of whom are fleeing Syria and other war-torn countries.