During Sunday Mass at a sunlit cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, a 22-year-old woman stepped timidly to a podium and began her story.
"My name is Dunia Cruz," she said in Spanish. "I came here from Honduras."
As she spoke of the gang violence that she said drove her and her toddler son from Central America in April — and of their dangerous journey across Mexico — Cruz was interrupted by bursts of applause.
Her tale resonated with many of the transplants from other countries in the crowded church pews.
The special Mass "in recognition of immigrants" is an annual ritual for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, drawing parishioners from across Southern California to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Much of the service focused on the tens of thousands of Central American children who have arrived in recent months at the nation's southern border, an influx that has overwhelmed border authorities and reignited passions on either side of the often-heated immigration debate.
"Let us pray for one another," said Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, who is an immigrant from Mexico. "And especially for the young people who have come here."
The church has been at the forefront of the effort to assist the recent arrivals. Parishes across Southern California have launched collection drives to gather donations for the immigrants, and a Catholic nonprofit aid group has provided free legal services to those seeking political asylum to remain in the United States.
Cruz, who is staying with her brother and his family near San Bernardino, said church workers had given her clothing for her 19-month-old son, William.
She and William turned themselves over to border authorities near McAllen, Texas, six weeks ago, part of a group that includes unaccompanied minors who say they are fleeing violence in Central America. More than 57,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the border since October, more than twice the total at this time last year. Some blame the surge on rumors circulating in Central America that children who cross the border will be allowed to stay.
The large number of arrivals has prompted protests from advocates for stricter immigration enforcement, with some saying local communities don't have the resources to support those entering the country illegally. Over the weekend, demonstrations were held across the country opposing an Obama administration plan to temporarily house thousands of immigrant children in communities in the United States.
Cruz said she and her son spent four days at a Border Patrol processing station before being released with orders to appear at a future immigration hearing. She cinched up her jeans to reveal a thick plastic tracking bracelet affixed to her ankle by immigration authorities to ensure she complies with the conditions of her release.
In Honduras, she said she regularly attended church and she credits God with protecting her and her son during their monthlong journey north.
Now she said she is praying to stay in the U.S.
"They're saying that they might send us back," she said. "All that suffering would be for nothing."