A delegation from Willmar joined the tens of thousands who marched in Washington, D.C., Sunday to press for immigration reform.
"A very amazing experience" is how Paola Janeth Pena described it three days later. "You could feel the power of all those people together," she said.
Waving signs and American flags, the demonstrators urged for lawmakers to tackle an immigration bill -- and to do it soon. The crowd, estimated at 200,000, filled the Washington Mall for the rally.
Nine people from Willmar joined a Minnesota delegation Saturday morning, funding the trip through donations and their own money. They rode all day on a bus to reach the national capital in time for the rally.
Pena, who flew separately to Washington and joined the Minnesota group Sunday morning on the Mall, said the event drew people of all ages and backgrounds, both citizens and immigrants. She encountered people from the Middle East, from Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as Mexico and Central and South America.
Within the crowd were two brothers, ages 5 and 7, whose mother had been deported. The boys, who were accompanied by a social worker, carried signs pleading to be reunited with their mother.
"It was heartbreaking," Pena said.
It's a story that has been repeated countless times among families divided by current immigration policies and enforcement, she said.
A native of northern Mexico, she has been in the United States for nine years and has a college degree in social work administration.
"There's a lot of families in need of finding a solution," she said. "Being from Mexico, I understand and I know the situation. Life is not easy and everybody is looking for a better future."
Giant TV screens were set up outdoors on the Mall so that the crowd could hear messages from speakers that included church leaders, African-American leaders and Latino congressional representatives, among them Nydia Velasquez, D-N.Y., and Luis Gutierrez, D- Ill.
President Obama didn't attend the rally but sent a videotaped message, pledging to seek a bipartisan consensus on fixing a broken immigration system.
The Willmar delegation pressed the issue further by meeting Monday with the staffs of Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Collin Peterson.
"They sat and they listened and they were taking notes," said Pena, who is writing about the rally for La Gran America newspaper.
The Willmar faith community organized the local delegation's trip to Washington, led by the Rev. Chad Gilbertson of United Methodist Church and the Rev. John Gutterman of World Church Services.
Sr. Mary Kay Mahowald, of the Willmar Area Comprehensive Immigration Reform coalition, said she hopes the rally, and the presence of a local delegation, will help keep the issue in the forefront.
Keeping families together, offering illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, and preserving national security are among the priorities, she said.
"The need is not going away. People are not going to go away," she said.