When Andrea Cristina Mercado arrived at the Capitol on Thursday morning, she was tired and sore. She’d been walking for eight days, over one hundred miles from an immigration detention center in Philadelphia to Washington, DC, in order to hear Pope Francis’ address to Congress. With her were 99 other women from Uganda, China, Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, Vietnam, the United States and other countries, some of them undocumented, all marching in support of the rights of migrants and refugees. Several were grandmothers; the youngest was a 4-year-old in a stroller that the older women took turns pushing. After a summer thick with vitriol, they were hoping the pope might soften the tenor of America’s immigration debate.
Mercado was not disappointed. “To hear him call for compassion for migrants was a beautiful end to our journey,” she said after the pope’s address, which was striking for its sweeping appeal on immigration. “On this continent…thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,” the pope said. “Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”
By framing immigration as a moral challenge, rather than a criminal or political one, activists say the pope reinforced much of the work they are doing to challenge dehumanizing rhetoric and the policies it justifies. “His remarks have really helped to humanize immigrants, so we can be seen as people with dreams, people who are part of the fabric of the country,” said Christina Jimenez, managing director of the youth organization United We Dream. With immigration reform dead in Congress, a legal battle delaying the Obama administration’s attempt to extend relief through executive action, and the conversation dominated by Donald Trump’s brand of malevolence, the pope’s visit “provides a huge opportunity to raise up the struggle of our families,” Jimenez said.
Cesar Vargas, who co-directs the Dream Action Coalition, was glad to hear Francis personalize the immigration struggle by speaking “as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.” Referring to the Dreamers, or unauthorized youth who were brought to the United States as children, Vargas said, “That’s exactly how we’ve been able to connect with our friends and our colleagues in Washington, DC, by telling our story. Whether this actually translates into actual legislative action, you know, we will see. But I definitely think that overall the pope touched on a nerve that was really sincere.”
Arturo Carmona, the executive director of Presente.org, said he was surprised to see Republican members of Congress offer even tepid applause during the pope’s comments on immigration. “The reality is that the rhetoric of today’s GOP and the presidential debates are far from [the pope’s],” Carmona said. “We’ve entered a dark era of hate and xenophobia that will be remembered for a long time. We certainly hope that this positive spirit is translated into the rhetoric of today’s political reality.”
Though the pope’s admonition to move beyond “a mindset of hostility” was an obvious rebuke to Republicans, some advocates pointed out that it also applies to the Obama administration’s enforcement policies and handling of refugee crises both at the southern border and overseas. “The pope’s speech to Congress comes at a critical time when millions of Syrian refugees are seeking protection and a growing number of families and children are fleeing gang violence, rape, and domestic violence in Central America,” Kica Matos of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement wrote in a statement. “We stand with the pope in the call for humanity and cooperation in such a way to make the conditions of immigrants more humane. This includes an end to unjust deportations and detention and the recognition of our humanity by way of comprehensive immigration reform that provides a clear path to citizenship and family unity.”
At least one Democrat has already drawn upon the pope’s rhetoric to press for the United States to accept more refugees from Syria. Immigration hardliners, on the other hand, immediately sought a way to skirt the implications of the pope’s message. “I don’t think the Golden Rule can be used to justify violating a nation’s immigration laws. I don’t know that he meant that,” Senator Jeff Sessions, a vociferous opponent of immigration reform, told a reporter after the speech. “When we speak of welcoming immigrants, I believe that should refer to legal immigrants,” said Senator Ted Cruz.
Even if the pope’s comments do not immediately shift the political dynamics, activists hope they will resonate beyond the Capitol, and buoy a movement whose detractors have been far louder of late than their champions. “That was our hope,” Mercado said, “that our walk and the pope’s message would touch people’s hearts, so that they will act with compassion for migrants.”