PHILADELPHIA — For Ciro Hernández, 53, Pope Francis represents hope.
An immigrant from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Hernández works at a chicken plant in Alabama, and he is one of 53 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Mobile who have traveled 1,100 miles in a bus to Philadelphia for this weekend’s papal visit. “I just want to be blessed by the pope,” he said. “I want to take a picture with him and shake his hand and give him a hug.” And he is hoping that whatever Francis says will help the nation’s immigrants.
Francis has already brought immigration center stage during this trip. At his speech to Congress on Thursday, he urged the U.S. to welcome immigrants, reminding them, “Most of us were once foreigners.” During his address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Saturday, he is expected to deliver his most focused message yet on immigration.
Hernández hopes that, somehow, Francis’ words will make a difference. “Maybe the pope can help us get the papers — talk to the government or president so all the people can get their papers,” he said.
The Alabama pilgrims are staying in dormitory-style accommodations at the Thomas Aquinas community center in the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia. The center received requests from various groups that wanted to stay there during the papal visit, some offering to pay generous amounts, but the center chose to forfeit profit in favor of accommodating the immigrant pilgrims instead, said Sister Ruth Bolarte, the chairwoman of the center’s board. “This was a family group. You have a mixture of adults, children, young people,” she said. “And of course, they are Hispanic, [some] migrant workers. Those are groups that stay in the margins, unfortunately. Even in our ministry within the church, they’re the last group sometimes we think about.”
Olga Villar, the director of Hispanic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Mobile, coordinated the trip and joined the group on the bus to Philadelphia. Most of the pilgrims, she said, are living in the U.S. without proper authorization. According to Villar, the men and women in the group work in manual labor — construction, landscaping, cleaning houses. Most are Mexican nationals, with others from Guatemala, Panama, Honduras and Venezuela.
“I know it was faith that drove them through the desert and the Rio Grande,” said Villar, sitting on the floor outside one of the dormitories. “Seeing the pope is something so foreign to them,” she said, and many might have thought, “‘You’re not worthy of touching or being near.’ And this means for many, the impossible is possible.”
Volunteers from Philadelphia’s large community of Catholics, many of them also from immigrant families, welcomed the group with homemade snacks and handmade decorations at the Aquinas Center. Claudia Chavac, 23, a youth volunteer at a South Philadelphia church, is one of them. She tucked the corners of an orange sheet around the mattress of one of the guest beds shortly before the group arrived.
Chavac arrived from Guatemala at age 10 and said she was teased and insulted at her school until she was able to speak English. She said she hopes the pope’s message will motivate U.S. politicians to find a more compassionate approach to immigration. “I expect them to find a way to deal with immigration and give them opportunities to help them so they don’t [have to] separate from their families,” she said.