A line of about 140 religious marchers — led by a Christian carrying a large cross and ending with a Buddhist monk chanting — walked through Gainesville on Sunday praying for the humane treatment of Georgia’s immigrant population.
Gainesville was the starting point for a Holy Week pilgrimage in which peace marchers will walk and pray through cities in Northeast Georgia and metro Atlanta where organizers say immigrants suffer.
Organizers are using the weeklong pilgrimage that started Sunday in Gainesville to call for the end of law enforcement raids that separate families, ask for humane immigration reform and the revision of trade policies that increase unauthorized immigration.
“We really hope that with this walk it will motivate the Latino community to unite and start working together with other communities to make it comfortable for everyone to enjoy the blessings of this country,” said Noey Guajardo, a local organizer of the event.
About 50 people confirmed before Sunday that they would march, said Guajardo.
But when the march started Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Mountains Center, at least 120 people were lined up to walk.
Before the march ended for the day at Plaza del Toro on Atlanta Highway, 142 people had joined the cause, Guajardo said. The march resumes today and will continue every day this week until the pilgrimage ends Friday afternoon in Atlanta.
Some, like 77-year-old Haven Whiteside, who traveled from Tampa, Fla., to march, planned to march every day.
Bert Levitt, a 59-year-old Gainesville resident, was also among the marchers who walked through Gainesville on Sunday. Levitt said he walked Sunday to call for the compassionate treatment of all people.
“(Immigration) it’s a complex issue,” Levitt said. “I just think that things could be handled better and with a lot of compassion.”
Levitt said there are better, more humane ways to control immigration; the first step would be to control employers, he said.
And like many others marching Sunday, Levitt said deportation proceedings could also be handled better. He said immigration enforcement should not split up families or send children to countries where they have no relatives.
“I think that’s way over the top,” Levitt said.
Gainesville resident Mercy Tomasulo said she was marching in honor of her friends who have been detained for coming to the country illegally. Some of those friends have been deported, she said, leaving their wives and children alone in Gainesville.
Tomasulo’s purpose Sunday was to call attention to a need for a more thoughtful approach to immigration reform and the need to treat immigrants humanely, she said.
“I just don’t think anybody should have to live in fear, especially when they have roots established,” Tomasulo said.
On a 6-mile trek through Gainesville, the future North Georgia Detention facility was the marchers’ first stop.
Corrections Corporation of America, a privately run corrections company, will soon house illegal immigrants awaiting deportation in the facility. Organizers cited the facility as one reason Gainesville was chosen as a city in the weeklong pilgrimage.
“This is not a government building,” said organizer Anton Flores as marchers lined up in front of the building on Main Street. “This will be run by a private company that made over $35 million in profit last quarter.”
Flores told marchers that CCA’s current facility in Lumpkin currently houses 1,900 immigrants at a time for an average of 40 days and 40 nights. He asked pilgrims to keep those detainees in their prayers as they continued to walk.
Sunday’s march was an interfaith pilgrimage with Christians, Mennonites and Buddhists participating.
The group was led Sunday by one marcher who carried a wooden cross with messages written on it in Spanish.
In a mass that preceded the march at the Georgia Mountains Center, one woman described the cross as a sign of shame and likened Jesus’ trials to those immigrants face today.
“What happened to Jesus in Calvary is happening today to migrants,” she told parishioners at the Palm Sunday mass.
“Let us ask for forgiveness for all the times we have dehumanized our migrant brothers and sisters.”
The pilgrimage continues today in Lawrenceville, where pilgrims will pray in front of the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Department. The department is trying to start a 287(g) program with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The program, installed in Hall County last year, allows local law enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of arrestees and process those in the country illegally for deportation.