Chanting "sí se puede!" – "Yes we can!" – with their fists and hands raised high, 1,000 people packed Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Sunday to cheer 11 pilgrims who will march 285 miles from Sacramento to Bakersfield calling for a change to immigration law.
Bishop Jaime Soto blessed the 11 pilgrims who plan to walk 21 days in support of 11 million "aspiring Americans" without legal papers.
"Our hope and our faith in immigration reform has always been inspired by our faith in human dignity and the word of God and God's strength, wisdom and overwhelming charity," Soto said in Spanish and English.
While there has been much resistance among some Americans to immigration proposals in Congress that would change immigration law, Soto said to a standing ovation: "America is stronger when we all participate to create a humane society. We believe this journey is a journey of faith and journey of hope."
Eight buses from the Bay Area and other parts of California were parked outside the church to help launch the pilgrimage, featuring seven undocumented immigrants, including Sacramento's Diana Campos. Her parents brought her from Aguascalientes, Mexico, on her first birthday, July 26, 1994.
The 20-year-old singer and songwriter came to Sacramento on a tourist visa. She told the crowd, "I went from being a straight-A student to a C student because the undocumented part of me felt no need to try. It's hard watching your friends get their lives together, get licenses, jobs, doing normal things I can't do."
Campos was accepted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston – tuition $60,000 a year – but her parents couldn't afford it, and without legal papers she didn't qualify for scholarships or financial aid.
"The only world I knew was pushing me down," she said. "My parents had a cleaning business working with dangerous chemicals every day. I saw my mother's worn hands. This march is for all the times I saw her cry in silence. Every New Year's Day my father would say this is our year (to become legal), but it never was and I began to lose hope."
Now an American River College student, Campos declared, "I am an American: I don't know where to go. So tomorrow (Monday) I will walk for all the undocumented immigrants in limbo trying to find themselves, for my parents and all the parents who have sacrificed their lives. Our families cannot be separated any more."
Campos said she and the other pilgrims will be staying with host families as they walk through 12 congressional districts until Labor Day to support a swift path to citizenship.
Campos has qualified for a work permit and ultimately a green card under what's known as the DREAM Act for minor children brought here illegally by their parents. But that's not enough for her or her family. She wants full citizenship.
PICO California – which organized the "Campaign for Citizenship" pilgrimage with Sacramento Area Congregations Together and Placer County People of Faith Together – said the path to to citizenship should take no more than seven years, rather than the 13 years it now takes undocumented immigrants who don't qualify as DREAM Act students.
While critics have said immigration changes would disrupt Social Security and Medicaid and take jobs from citizens, the average age of "aspiring Americans" is younger than that of current citizens.
That means they would pay into Social Security longer and increase economic growth by 3 percent in 10 years, said Cecilia Munoz and Noemi Hernandez, activists from Citrus Heights.
Meanwhile, nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants are housed in private detention, they said. "It costs $5.1 billion to hold just 23,000 people on immigration-related charges."
The 11 pilgrims include Andrew Vue, a Hmong American citizen from Sacramento who spoke on behalf of his parents' generation, who fought the Vietnamese and Laotian communists alongside U.S. troops and had to flee Laos when the communists won.
"There are still people who have given up everything for America and are still waiting for citizenship," Vue said. "We too want more than temporary legal status."
Ana Gloria, a pilgrim from San Jose, carried an American flag in her backpack.
The refugee from the civil war in El Salvador said she's walking for all the undocumented farmworkers "who are being treated badly by farmers, who don't want to pay them on time."
"We bless these brave pilgrims," Bishop Soto said. "We will keep them in our prayers. We lend our voices to theirs and all our immigrant brothers and sisters searching for the American dream as we strive for immigration reform that makes American stronger, safer, more united and just."
GALLERY: More photos from Bishop Jaime Soto's blessing of the pilgrims on Sunday. www.sacbee.com/2013/08/11/5642189/bishopjaime-soto-blesses-pilgrims.html
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.