At US-Mexico border, bishops emphasize bonds of faith and family

A migrant farmer chats with other attendees at a Mass near the US Mexico border on Sept 25 2019 CNA A migrant farm worker chats with fellow Catholics at a Mass celebrated near the US-Mexico border, on Sept. 25, 2019. | Jonah McKeown/CNA

At a Mass and press conference held at the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas on Wednesday, bishops from the border region emphasized the importance of providing care for migrant families, especially those who share a common faith and baptism with American Catholics.

"These are baptized Christians. From the faith perspective, that's what we forget sometimes because we're so focused on the charity part of it," Bishop Brendan Cahill of the Diocese of Victoria, Texas told CNA Sept. 25.

"But these are baptized Catholics, so these are our brothers and sisters. So respecting national borders, respecting everything else, there's still a bond there through sacramentality."

The delegation of bishops, led by Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, is visiting the border this week to meet migrants at aid centers and in the fields where many of them work. The visit was designed as a pastoral encounter with migrants and Catholic leaders of the Dioceses of Las Cruces, New Mexico, El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. Five bishops were present at the Mass and press conference.

Fr. Robert Stark, Regional Coordinator of the Vatican's Section on Migrant and Refugees, was also in attendance. Pope Francis has declared Sunday, Sept. 29 as World Day of Migrants and Refugees.

Cahill celebrated the Mass in Spanish on Wednesday evening at the Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos, located in South El Paso just a stone's throw from the border fence. The 8,000 square foot adobe-brown facility has for over 25 years provided aid for the thousands of migrant farmers who cross from Mexico to work in the United States every day.

The bishop related the story of a family he knows: A husband and father drives each day from Mexico across the border to New Mexico to farm, leaving at 3 am and arriving back home around 7 pm. He sleeps, and then does it again the next day.

Most chili farm workers are paid around 79 cents for each large bucket of chilis or onions picked.

"Over these past few days we've heard dozens of stories, but to me there's a similar theme to all of's really all about family. It's about parents caring for their children, and I think for any of us that's our number one concern."

In Ciudad Juarez, Central American migrants are being treated "very well," Cahill said, but the threat to the families, and particularly mothers, still has impacted him.

"As I listen to the migrant farm workers' stories, I hear challenges to keep the family together, opportunities for families because it is work and provides, so I think that has to be admitted that that's a good, but then to see what we can do even better."

Though the situation on both sides of the border is "overwhelming," Cahill emphasized Pope St. John Paul II's exhortation to pray for the family- not just one's own family, but for the holiness and wellbeing of all families.

"The experience of being on the border and listening to people's stories- and these are regular people- is that the family is always the forefront," he said.

"I want to pray for the family unit, that we protect mothers and fathers and children, and that they can be together. And that's what I noticed here on the border, a lot of economic forces, a lot of things challenging keeping the family together."

Seitz said at the press conference that it is unusual to have so many bishops gathered together around one particular theme outside of the regular bishops' meeting. The special focus of the visit, he said, is on farm workers.

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"They're a quiet reality that have been passing through El Paso, staying in El Paso, moving out from El Paso for many decades here," Seitz said.

Seitz said the visit was designed to allow those who had not visited the border area before a chance to get a feel for the area, and a border situation that is "changing every day."

The Mass coincided with a vote taken in Congress Wednesday to block President Donald Trump's emergency declaration at the southern border, which is designed to divert funds from other projects to build a wall on the border with Mexico. The president is expected to veto Congress' action.

On Tuesday the bishops visited Ciudad Juarez to visit a large aid facility, as well as a visit to Corpus Christi parish, which is largely serving farm workers and their families. On Thursday, the bishops plan to take a visit to Hatch, New Mexico to meet farmers there who grow and pick the valley's world famous chilis.

The bishops also met with groups of Central American migrants in Ciudad Juarez who had been waiting in Mexico for a chance to cross the border.

"It's devastating to see that these dreams that they have, dreams that my own parents had as immigrants to the United States from Mexico some 60 years ago, and people continue with those dreams," said Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Jose, formerly bishop of Las Cruces.

"We know that they're coming not to take advantage of this wonderful, generous country, but rather to have an opportunity to work and to raise their families in safety and dignity."

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According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, apprehensions of "unaccompanied alien children" has risen by nearly 75% from May 2018 to May 2019. The rise in apprehensions is led by El Paso, which has seen a 323% rise in that period.

The rise in apprehensions of families is higher- 463% across the board. El Paso's rate of apprehension of families rose 2,100%.

Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, formerly a priest of the diocese of El Paso, praised the work of Catholics in the diocese working to welcome migrants. 

"The Diocese of El Paso has given an example for the whole country of how to welcome immigrants, how to love immigrants, how to clothe immigrants, how to provide shelter to immigrants, how to treat them as brothers and sisters and receive them here,"

The Department of Homeland Security announced new Migrant Protection Protocols in January, providing that migrants arriving illegally or without proper documentation "may be returned to Mexico and wait outside of the U.S. for the duration of their immigration proceedings, where Mexico will provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay."
These policies, Stowe noted, have meant that that tens of thousands of migrants are "stuck" on the Mexico side of the border, as asylum claims can take years to process.

"It was just months ago that thousands of people were coming across the border, flooding this city, and they were received in shelters throughout this city by people of faith who reached out. Not only our Catholic Church but other churches in town, reaching out and serving them. That's a beautiful example for the whole country; it's what our nation was founded on, and it's specifically important for our Catholic Church."

In terms of practical actions the faithful in El Paso have taken, Seitz told CNA that the diocese in Oct. 2018 opened a shelter at the pastoral center, a "purely volunteer response," to deal with the large number of people passing through the city. The temporary shelter has since closed due to a drop in the number of migrants passing through.

"Right now, we've seen a huge drop off in the number of people coming because of enforcement actions in Mexico," Seitz noted.

"So what's happening is there's kind of a bottleneck in Ciudad Juarez, and we estimate that there are up to 20,000 people that are pretty much stuck there. They're afraid to go home, because that's where they're fleeing from...they're afraid to stay in Mexico, because most of them have faced violence there."

Robberies and kidnappings among the migrants waiting in Mexico are common, he said.

The HOPE Border Institute, along with the Diocese of El Paso, in July initiated a Border Refugee Assistance Fund to send money to organizations working with migrants and refugees in Juarez.

"Do we believe there is a usefulness to a border? Absolutely. The Church has not problem with that usefulness. But we also know that there are higher laws than than the law that has to do with a nation's border."

"We are Catholic Christians, and we are citizens. If the two ever come into conflict, we need to be Catholic Christians first," Seitz told CNA.

The majority of the migrants that the Church in El Paso helps have already been processed by ICE and are awaiting their court date for asylum.

"The fact is that most of these people that are crossing, seeking asylum, are not breaking the law. They're following the law that was established for people like our ancestors who came here seeking refuge...And we need to try and see things through the eyes of Jesus Christ and through the teachings of our Church. And those teachings should be clear when they say that if we encounter someone in need, we need to do what we can to help them."

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