YORK, Pa. - Alma Lopez stood outside the county prison here, where undocumented immigrants are jailed pending deportation, and broke into tears.
All around her, scores of activists unfurled banners emblazoned with inspirational messages, snapped keepsake photos with their smartphones, prayed, and sang in Spanish and English to support the 100 women who set off Tuesday on a 100-mile march to Washington.
The weeklong trek, which organizers are calling a pilgrimage, is designed to humanize the increasingly demonized national debate about immigration. Hoofing south through Maryland, the march is timed to end in Washington on the eve of Pope Francis' visit. Days later in Philadelphia, he's due to deliver a major address on immigration.
Tuesday's send-off from a parking lot here was a somber pep rally of sorts. Processional standards billowed with papal messages from long bamboo poles. Across the blacktop, the prison's high chain-link fences bristled with razor wire.
Lopez, a native Mexican who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, had her year-old son, Yael, glued to her hip and two older children in tow. The gathering was especially moving because her husband, Javier, also Mexico-born, was just a few hundred yards away, locked inside York County Prison since his May 5 arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for repeatedly entering the U.S. illegally.
Lopez last spoke to him by telephone last weekend.
"He's not a bad person," she said, looking toward the prison. "He just wanted to be with the family. He was working [as a tree trimmer] to send money to his mother, who has cancer, in Mexico."
Flanked by leaders of We Belong Together, the national nonprofit that organized the march, the Rev. Jonathan Sawicki of St. Mary's Parish in York offered opening blessings.
"What these women are going to do is give a very human face to what is too often seen as an abstract in the press," he said later in an interview. "You turn on the news, and oftentimes they are being vilified. These are good people. These are hardworking people. . . . They will, I hope, move hearts and minds and therefore policy."
Amid the wars, poverty, and violence driving a worldwide refugee crisis, and the ordinary migration of people seeking better lives in America, the United States is contending with how and how much to overhaul its immigration laws, and what to do about the estimated 11.5 million people living here illegally.
Organizers said at least four people from New Jersey and five from Pennsylvania hope to complete the march, although they could not be immediately identified in Tuesday's crowd.
Playing a big role, however, is Pilar Molina, 29, of Norristown, who was second in line when the marchers, along with several hundred supporters who joined them for just the first four miles, set out about 10:30 a.m.
Molina, a member of the Philadelphia-area immigrant-rights group Juntos, said she will peel away from the group Wednesday because she is scheduled to testify about immigration at two congressional hearings. If possible, she said, she will rejoin them for the closing vigil in D.C.
Born in Mexico and brought to this country as a child, Molina qualified for a deferral from deportation in 2013 and runs Tortilleria La Familia grocery in Norristown.
Her husband, Israel Resendiz Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was arrested by ICE agents in January 2013 on charges of repeatedly crossing the southern border illegally. One of those trips, Molina said, was to attend a family funeral.
Hernandez, who was jailed in York as well as at another country prison in Pennsylvania, engaged in a 19-day hunger strike to throw a spotlight on his case, and eventually was allowed to rejoin his wife and U.S.-born daughters, Caitlin, 10, and Ariana, 4, while his lawyer fights his deportation.
When Molina told his story publicly at the rally, adding how she had found comfort in her Catholic faith, the crowd cheered, "Sí se puede" - yes we can.
Samantha Herrera and Rosa Sanluis, members of Fuerza del Valle, a domestic workers center in the Rio Grande Valley, came from Texas to join the march. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, a union, provided scholarships for their airfare to Baltimore and chartered-bus transportation to York. Their local group held a fund-raiser to buy them new socks and sneakers. Neither has walked 100 miles before. They have been training six miles a day.
"We are here to raise our voices, along with the pope's," said Herrera, 23. "Global migration should be met with global compassion."
With two police cars escorting the marchers to manage the road traffic, the line stretched several hundred yards in the noonday sun, past strip malls and open fields.
Cynthia Swank of Lancaster was idling at a stoplight in her dark SUV when the parade passed by. She had seen news reports about the marchers.
"More power to them," she said.