Even if Pope Francis doesn’t say a word when he visits the border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, directly across from the city of El Paso, Texas, he’s already sent a message in support of migrants.
But of course he will give speeches and homilies at the border, and some people will be paying close attention to his choice of words.
Ciudad Juarez is “a highly significant location in terms of the human and social problems faced by Mexico and the continent as a whole,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi during a briefing on the Mexican journey last week. In addition to visiting a prison, meeting with workers and celebrating Mass, the pope is expected to go to the border, where he will approach the metal fence and “greet” migrants on the other side.
Francis begins a nearly week-long visit to Mexico when he arrives this Friday, after making a brief stop in Cuba to meet with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill I. The events in Juarez on Feb. 17 follow what is certain to be a whirlwind and emotional tour of Mexico City, Ecatepec, Tuxtla Gutierrez, San Cristobal de Las Casas and Morelia.
“We’re very happy to have him back in this part of the world and bring positive images of the issue of migrants,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of CLINIC, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., a Silver Spring, Md.-based umbrella organization representing more than 280 nonprofit legal services organizations nationwide with a variety of training programs, advocacy and other types of support. “It’s been a refrain of his, the concern for the plight of migrants. Juarez is kind of our Lampedusa. That in itself is a kind of a statement.”
Lampedusa is the Sicilian island Pope Francis visited in 2013 to commemorate the thousands of migrants who have died crossing the Mediterranean sea from North Africa. It was his first official trip outside Rome.
Atkinson, who will be in El Paso during the pope’s visit, noted that last September in the United States, Francis introduced himself as a “child of immigrants” (his parents moved from Italy to Argentina) and called on Americans “to look to our better selves, specifically telling us not to think of immigrants as numbers but to think of them as people.”
For Jill Marie Gerschutz-Bell, the choice of words Pope Francis uses while in Ciudad Juarez will be important. Gerschutz-Bell is a senior legislative specialist with Catholic Relief Services and has been promoting policies to protect migrant children and young adults who have been fleeing gang warfare and poverty in Central America. The year 2014 saw massive migration of unaccompanied children and youth across the southern US border.
But rather than recognizing the refuge-seekers as bona fide refugees, the United States and Mexico have been turning many back or not protecting them sufficiently from traffickers and others who might exploit them.
“Migrants and refugees fleeing though Mexico are very vulnerable to kidnapping and extortion and assault and even death,” she said. “So we’d like to see much stronger protection of those immigrant and refugee children. … Because of the corruption pervasive throughout Mexico, many of the police and border officials and others who should be protecting them are often preying on these migrants and refugees.”
“We do hope [Pope Francis] will be able to influence the U.S. government, the Mexican government and other governments in the region who are seeing the flight of refugees, to press them to provide greater protection,” Gerschutz-Bell said. “The Obama Administration, fortunately, did announce on Jan. 13 that they would be working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to process and resettle up to 9,000 youth in the region. That’s critical; that’s the kind of protection the Church is looking for, taking these children out of harm’s way, putting them in an environment of protection, and reviewing their cases to see if they can be protected as refugees, maybe in Costa Rica, maybe in Mexico, maybe in the United States. That’s the kind of thing the pope would be asking for.”
She said that the United Nations, in a 2014 report called Children on the Run, argued that the majority of children they interviewed would likely get refugee status if they had an opportunity to share their case with the appropriate officials.
If in Mexico the pope uses the term refugees rather than immigrants, “that will put a bit of pressure on the governments of Mexico and the U.S. to accelerate and expand their protection of these children,” she said.
The last thing Pope Francis is scheduled to do before leaving Mexico is to celebrate Mass at the fairgrounds of Ciudad Juarez. The stage, Father Lombardi pointed out, “is situated less than 90 yards from the border, and tens of thousands of people are expected to be on the other side.”
“We are thrilled that Pope Francis will make a stop through this border region,” said El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz when the papal trip was announced in December. “We hope that in a special way, Pope Francis’ visit to this region will give voice to these often voiceless people. And we hope that his presence here will facilitate a much-needed national dialogue that will help unite our own country around a compassionate response to the poor in our midst.”
An El Paso-based group called the Border Network for Human Rights, which assists undocumented immigrants, plans to hang a message addressed to Pope Francis about the importance of immigration reform. The sign, in huge letters, reads “Immigrant Lives Matter” and will be visible from both sides of the border.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.