TAMPA — Bishop Robert Lynch told hundreds of people gathered at a Monday rally for immigration reform that undocumented workers are the modern-day equivalents of early Christians, decent people fearful of emerging from the shadows.
"It is hypocrisy to say 'I love God,' all the while hating" those who seek a better life in the United States, said Lynch, head of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, speaking to a crowd at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
The evening rally, which began inside the church and ended with a short march to the federal courthouse, marked the seventh and final day of a walk across southwest Florida to campaign for immigration reform. The "Way for Citizenship" event was organized by PICO United Florida, a network of congregations.
Over the din of crying children and softly praying adults, Lynch called for legislation that allowed a path to citizenship and that also permitted family reunification. Lynch said he's heard of families torn apart when the fathers in the families are deported.
"What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder," he said, speaking in English, then in Spanish.
Lynch spoke of the contributions of immigrant labor to the local economy. "The strawberries of this county were planted and will soon be picked by immigrants," he told the mostly Hispanic crowd — among them men and women gripping vigil programs and flip phones with dirt visible under their fingernails.
A portion of Florida Avenue was closed to traffic to allow the participants to march down the street to the courthouse after the vigil. They continued singing and praying as they walked out into the evening.
Esther Mendez, 33, of Ruskin was born in the United States but said she was marching on behalf of immigrants like her mother — people who came across the border and started new lives here.
"We're here to support the Hispanic community and to bring awareness that there are so many who contributed," said Mendez, who works at a pest control company.
Raul Hernandez, a 30-year-old construction worker from Ruskin, said he came to the United States with his parents when he was 15 and never left.
"We didn't come here to do any bad things," he said. Here for half his life now, he is married and has two children of his own. He said he hopes for reforms though he's been disappointed before.
"It's frustrating because every year we are so close," he said. "I hope God helps us."