As two of the 15 pilgrims who walked 285 miles over 21 days in August from Sacramento to Bakersfield, we want to share what we learned along the way. The Pilgrimage for a Pathway to Citizenship has been, above all else, a spiritual journey. It has been a way to bear witness to the suffering that 11 million aspiring Americans have endured for too long, as they have been stigmatized and persecuted, their mixed-status families torn apart or in constant fear of deportation, victims of a broken, cruel, and outdated immigration system.
Our testimonies and scores of other testimonies we have heard have allowed us to recover the human dimension of the immigration issue. Above the usual debate over statistics, securing borders, ever-more punitive laws, and political calculations, it was really about the millions of families that suddenly lost a mother or father, of American youth divided by the accident of birth from having opportunities opened up or whose dreams have been shattered, of loved ones that cannot travel to visit their dying relatives, of mothers who have not seen their children for years, of hard-working folks who can't get ahead or lose everything because of a myriad of legal obstacles. The pilgrimage was instrumental in calling our attention to these realties for millions of our neighbors, friends, and family members.
The pilgrims have been embraced by the communities of faith we visited, feeding us as they have been feeding the nation with their hard work in the fields, pouring out their love and affection, taking care of us, making our journey a celebration of brotherhood and renewed human dignity. These communities reasserted to us the primacy of moral reason in a polarized political environment, joining us in every prayer asking their Congressional representatives, regardless of party affiliation, to provide these 11 million aspiring Americans an affordable, inclusive, timely pathway to citizenship, to reunify families that have been torn apart, and to allow their deported loved ones to return. We were also reminded of the untold thousands of migrants who have died in their attempt to reach the United States. We must honor their sacrifice by fixing the legal immigration system so that no one ever again will have to go through such extremes to come to America. It's not an issue of more walls and drones, it's an issue of ensuring adequate access and providing a dignified, welcoming path to immigrants.
The pilgrimage was a political catalyst. The route was chosen to visit five congressional districts and invite the Congressmen from each of them to join us in large public events, usually at a church. Gov. Jerry Brown called us before we left Sacramento to wish us well, and Bishop Jaime Soto blessed the pilgrims in a send-off ceremony.
Our first congressional event was in Lodi with Rep. Jerry McNerney, a Democrat; the next event was in Patterson with Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican, followed by one in Merced with Reps. Jim Costa and Javier Becerra, both Democrats. As we crossed Fresno and Visalia we did not receive a response from Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican, so we visited his Visalia office and did a "prayin." Rep. David Valadao has already come out in support of a pathway to citizenship.
Every member of Congress on the Pilgrimage route, except for Rep. Nunes, had unequivocally declared his support for a comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship.
The big question was what Rep. Kevin McCarthy would do. His office had previously informed us that he would not meet with us when we arrived in Bakersfield on Sept. 1 or at our public event on Sept. 2, and that was indeed the course that McCarthy chose -- but that was in keeping with his past refusal to take a public stand in support of a pathway to citizenship.
If he intends to provide leadership in the House, he'll first need to find his moral compass, then some courage. The pilgrims are praying that he does. As constituents in his district who walked 285 miles to help him find both, we will also hold him accountable when we vote.
Gonzalo Santos of Bakersfield is a professor of Sociology at CSU Bakersfield and a member of the 2013 Pilgrimage for a Pathway to Citizenship. Josth Stenner of Bakersfield is a member of the CSU Bakersfield class of 2013 who also made the 285-mile trek.