TAMPA — During his years at St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City, Father Carlos Rojas witnessed undocumented families torn apart by deportations, working in poor conditions, and living in fear of police.
"Just seeing it firsthand and suffering it with them," Rojas said. "That was my first assignment as a priest."
Rojas is now an immigration reform supporter. He will be among several Florida clergy and immigration leaders embarking today on a 150-mile walk called "The Way for Citizenship."
Four months after the U.S. Senate passed a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship and stronger border protection, the push for immigration reform has fallen stagnant within the House of Representatives.
"We're hoping that with this pilgrimage," said organizer Nanci Palacios, "we can ignite that flame that has been dying slowly in the last couple of months."
"The Way for Citizenship" is a reminder to lawmakers that an immigration overhaul is still needed, said Rojas, now assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wimauma.
"The time to do so is now," he said. "To wake up and shake things up to call for a reform."
The 11 walkers trekking across southwest Florida represent the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, said Palacios, a campaign manager for PICO United Florida, a network of congregations supporting immigration reform that organized the walk.
The walkers, some of them from Tampa and Clearwater, will begin their trek 9 a.m. today at the Resurrection Catholic Church in Winter Garden. During their journey, they will visit about 20 churches in several cities, including Kissimmee, Haines City, Brandon, and Dover.
On Oct. 14, they are scheduled to arrive at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa for a candlelight prayer vigil with Bishop Robert N. Lynch, followed by a walk to the front of the federal courthouse a few blocks away. Several other immigration advocates walking from Clearwater will also join them that day.
"I'm ready," said Palacios, who will participate in the walk. "It's nothing compared to what our families are living on a daily basis."
Palacios, 24, arrived illegally in the United States from Mexico with her family at age 6. When deferred action, a nationwide program allowing many young undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. for two years, became available last year, she applied.
In November, Palacios was approved and now has a work permit and a driver's license. She works for PICO Florida and plans to attend the University of South Florida in January as she pursues a bachelor's degree in biochemistry.
But deferred action is not permanent. Her parents remain undocumented.
"All of that really strengthens me," Palacios said, "to have that force and that strength to be able to make it the full way."
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.