Pope’s Ciudad Juarez Visit Spotlights Immigration Issues — On Both Sides of the Border

The Holy Father is expected to make a major statement on immigration policy when he celebrates a cross-border Mass in the Mexican city, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

Pope Francis arrives for Mass with representatives of the indigenous communities of Chiapas, Mexico, in the municipal sport center on Feb. 15.
Pope Francis arrives for Mass with representatives of the indigenous communities of Chiapas, Mexico, in the municipal sport center on Feb. 15. (photo: CNA/Alan Holdren)

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Pope Francis is expected to make a “major statement” on immigration policy and the plight of migrants when he spends the final day of his Mexican pilgrimage celebrating a “cross-border” Mass in Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million inhabitants across from El Paso, Texas.

The Holy Father has made immigration a significant theme in his five-day trip, where he has journeyed from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas to the northern border with Texas, which symbolically traces the route that migrants often take to reach the United States.

In addition to celebrating the open-air border Mass, Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with prisoners and address working people at a local college. He will also lay flowers near the Rio Grande and pray for migrants who have died while making the perilous trek north of the border.

And his words and gestures are resonating in the United States, even before he delivers his key immigration statement later today.

“His actions are really powerful and saying, ‘Look, the Church is on the side of the human being, who has intrinsic rights given by God, and governments have to adjust to that, to respect human life and human dignity, which, often, our immigration policies fail to do,” said Kevin Appleby, the international migration policy director for the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic think tank founded and operated by the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, also known as the Scalabrini Missionaries.

Appleby, the former director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, told the Register that Pope Francis’ actions are a reminder that migrants’ lives are inherently valuable, even though they are often overlooked and rarely defended by public authorities.

“I think he wants to send a message that policy makers should consider the rights of the person that are often lost in the deliberation over immigration,” Appleby said. “The fact that he’s doing it at the border, which is so politicized in our immigration debate, sends a strong message that human rights and human life should take precedence over enforcement, or at least certain forms of enforcement that undermine those rights.”


‘Wonderful Impact’

Father Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational organization that focuses on immigration matters, told the Register that he believes the Pope’s Mexican visit is having a “wonderful impact.”

“He’s visiting people at the margins, and he’s placing them at the center. I think that’s what we’re about as a Church,” said Father Carroll, adding that Pope Francis, in his words and actions, shows an understanding of how vulnerable to abuse and exploitation migrants are when traveling through Mexico.

“He knows what they suffer, and he is also recognizing that the Mexican Church has a significant role to play in protecting them, making sure their rights are respected and working for reform, so that their human dignity is recognized,” Father Carroll said.

In an address to Mexican bishops, Pope Francis called immigration “the challenge of our age,” and he has frequently returned to that theme. While speaking to the Mexican bishops, the Pope expressed appreciation for their efforts to confront the immigration challenge, and he urged them to collaborate with bishops in the United States to provide pastoral care to migrants.

“There are millions of sons and daughters of the Church who today live in the diaspora or who are in transit, journeying to the north in search of new opportunities,” the Holy Father said. “Many of them have left behind their roots in order to brave the future, even in clandestine conditions, which involve so many risks.”

Pope Francis also said that “so many families” are separated and that their integration into a “supposedly promised land” is not as easy as others would have them believe.

Father Carroll said a big reason why the Pope is traveling to Mexico is to bring attention to the plight of migrants.

“There is a political dimension to this, and (the Pope) has said as much,” Father Carroll said. “Anytime you show a concern for the common good and the community, you’re involved in a political reality.”


U.S. Political Realities

However, the current political reality in the United States includes a presidential election cycle, and the Pope’s Mexican visit coincides with primary elections. When it comes to immigration, the candidates from both major parties are trying to stake out tenable positions on what remains a contentious political issue.

While Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both said they support “comprehensive immigration reform” to provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the United States without legal documents, the Republican candidates are loath to support any immigration proposal that provides “amnesty” to those in the country illegally.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has sought to distance himself from a controversial immigration reform bill that he helped negotiate in 2013 as a member of the so-called “Gang of 8.”

Appearing on Meet the Press on Feb. 14, Rubio told moderator Chuck Todd that he agreed with Pope Francis in saying that the United States should be compassionate to migrants, though he added that the country has the right as a sovereign nation to pass and enforce immigration laws.

“I don’t think the Pope is saying to open up the borders and allow anyone who wants to come in,” Rubio said. “You can’t move to the Vatican just because you feel like moving there. They have laws that restrict who can live within that city-state, and I think the same is true for the United States.”

While Rubio, a Catholic, tried to maintain a respectful tone when asked about the Pope, Donald Trump, the brash and outspoken business executive who is leading in the Republican polls in the party by staking out a tough anti-immigration position, called Pope Francis “a very political person” during an interview last week on the Fox Business Network.

“I think he doesn’t understand the problems our country has,” Trump said. “I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico. And I think Mexico got him to do it because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is because they’re making a fortune, and we’re losing.”

The Pope’s spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters in Mexico on Feb. 16 that Trump's critical comments were “very strange,” Crux reported.

“The Pope always talks about migration problems all around the world, of the duties we have to solve these problems in a humane manner, of hosting those who come from other countries in search of a life of dignity and peace,” Lombardi said, adding that this is something “Trump would know if he came to Europe.”


Prudential Issue

While Father Carroll said it is “absolutely appropriate” for Pope Francis and Church leaders to be involved politically in the immigration issue, Marguerite Telford, a spokeswoman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that opposes illegal immigration and favors a strict immigration policy, disagrees.

“It bothers me as a practicing Catholic,” Telford told the Register. “This causes division in the Church on an issue that is still a prudential issue. I think the Pope should be bringing us together, but it seems he’s getting advice from liberal advocacy groups and bishops' offices.”

Telford said she is bothered by much of the pro-immigration rhetoric that focuses on reuniting families.

“The families became separated because someone made the decision to leave their families and come to the United States, particularly for economic reasons,” she said. “If they left for safety reasons, would they really be leaving their wives and children behind? Then, they make the decision not to go back. Their highest priority isn’t family reunification, yet somehow they’ve been able to turn the tables and blame it on the United States and say that our laws violate human dignity, when they made the conscious decision to separate their families.”

The Pew Research Center says Mexican migration to the United States has slowed dramatically in the past decade, and about 1 million Mexicans immigrants and their U.S.-born children returned to Mexico between 2009 and 2014, with about 61% of those doing so to reunite with relatives or to start a family.

The Pew Research Center also says that Mexico increasingly serves as a land bridge for Central American migrants traveling to the United States. Many of those migrants tell border agents in the United States that they are leaving gang violence and crippling poverty in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Telford said she took some hope from Pope Francis’ statements during a Mass in Ecatepec, where the Holy Father invited Mexicans to work to reform their country into a land of opportunity, so that poverty, violence and political corruption do not force them to emigrate.

“This seems out of step with all the Pope has been saying, but it makes me hopeful that he will stop encouraging individuals to cross our border illegally and Americans to adopt open borders,” Telford said.


Address the Root Causes

While Appleby holds sharply differing views from Telford, he noted that Pope Francis himself, in the July 2014 Holy See-Mexico Colloquium on Migration and Development, stressed the need to foster development in migrants’ countries of origin so that they do not feel forced to migrate.

“He says migrants should be welcome and protected,” Appleby said. “But one point he always makes, an important point, is that, over time, we need to look at the root causes of migration and to address those root causes, so people don’t feel compelled to risk their lives to leave their homes to support their families.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.