In front of the York County Prison early Tuesday morning, 100 immigrant women and their supporters gathered to kick off a weeklong march to Washington, D.C., culminating in a prayer vigil and — just maybe — a meeting with Pope Francis.
The marchers carried backpacks and banners, and many sported well-worn sneakers. Prisoners from a building across the street came out to watch from behind a chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire.
Andrea Mercado, an organizer from We Belong Together, led an opening ceremony in front of the prison, inviting marchers to speak and religious leaders to bless the pilgrims -- and the feet that will carry them 100 miles.
"Five years ago, we started the We Belong Together campaign in a moment of crisis for our community, in the wake of the passage of Arizona's SB-1070 law," said Mercado. That law drew criticism from groups that said it would encourage racial profiling, and many of its provisions were later struck down by the Supreme Court.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Now, We Belong Together's stance is simple, she said: "Women for common-sense immigration policies." The name hints at deportation laws that divide families.
We Belong Together is coordinating the march with what it says are about two dozen immigration advocacy organizations from around the country. After the remarks, the women started walking.
Many will do only short legs of the trip -- they have to return to jobs and families. Others, like Maria Orozco from Chicago and her 4-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, who rides in a stroller, are going all the way.
Orozco is from Mexico City and crossed the border by foot when she was 25. She's now lived in Chicago for 16 years, and said she's stuck working in unstable, minimum-wage temp jobs due to her status.
"Some days you are called to go to work and some days you aren't," she said. "You have to do something, so [some days] you work two shifts."
In Washington, the group will hold a prayer vigil in front of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Sept. 22, the evening before Pope Francis is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress. We Belong Together has requested an audience, inviting the Pope to the vigil, but so far have not heard back from the Vatican. The pope is expected to speak to lawmakers about immigration before he travels to the United Nations in New York and then Philadelphia.
Mercado said the group doesn't have a specific policy aim -- but wants to echo what she hopes will be a message of "human dignity for migrants" coming from the pontiff.
"The pope doesn't engage in policies of specific nations," she said. "We do believe that his message of treating migrants with dignity -- there are ways this is reflected in our nation's policies, and there are ways that it is not."