Pope Francis told reporters this week that he would like to make a U.S.-Mexico border crossing during his trip to the United States later this year.
“To enter the United States from the border with Mexico would be a beautiful gesture of brotherhood and support for immigrants,” Francis said on his return flight to Rome from his Philippines papal tour. The pope set tentative plans to visit Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, D.C. this year, but his itinerary does not included cities on the southern border.
Between 1998 and May 2013, at least 5,595 border crossers perished trying to cross the southern border. In the past year, 307 deaths were recorded, a grisly statistic down 26 percent from the previous year. Border officials say that the lower numbers of death can in part be attributed to greater Spanish-language ad campaigns aimed at deterring Latin Americans from leaving their countries. The drop in migrant deaths has also been helped by the implementation of ten additional rescue beacons set up by border officials that allow migrants to call for help when they’re lost in the desert. Still, the number of border deaths worldwide has reached 40,000 over the past 14 years.
Undocumented immigrants, who make border crossings, face kidnappings and extortion by smugglers, heat exhaustion, rape, and abandonment by coyotes, who are paid to help them smuggle across the desert. But research shows that desperation, poverty, and violence drive migrants to enter and re-enter the United States despite these conditions.
Francis has long been a strong advocate for immigrants, a reflection of his long-held support for migrants who are treated as disposable in a “throwaway culture.” In the past, his speeches focused on unaccompanied migrant children who came across the U.S. southern border, the U.S. deportation policy, and North African migrants who die trying to get to Europe.
Francis’ message of compassion towards migrants squares with the rallying cry recently used by other faith leaders. Last year, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston, a key adviser to Francis, walked along the U.S.-Mexico border and led a border mass with a group of bishops from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to pray for migrants. The USCCB has made immigration reform a top priority, even writing a letter to the Obama administration last year urging action to reduce the number of deportations.
On Tuesday, a group of Catholic leaders wrote a letter to more than two dozen pro-life Catholic congressional members urging them to support comprehensive immigration reform because it’s “another pro-life issue.” The letter read in part, “As brothers and sisters in faith, we urge these elected officials and all Catholics to defend the sanctity of human lives at all stages.” But House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), a Jesuit-educated Catholic, allowed the Republican-controlled House to vote on cutting funding from the president’s executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last week. That program has already granted temporary work authorization and deportation relief to more than 632,000 undocumented immigrants.
A poll found that 59 percent of all Catholics support allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country.