Pope Francis traveled to the border between the United States and Mexico on Wednesday, delivering a powerful message along the banks of Rio Grande river decrying systems of oppression that force people to flee to other countries and blessing undocumented immigrants.
The Holy Father arrived in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico yesterday for a symbolic visit to a city just across the border from the United States. Standing before an estimated crowd of 200,000 people — roughly 30,000 of them seated worshippers — Francis delivered a homily that appeared to implicitly chastise both the United States immigration system as well as the horrible gang violence that has sent thousands of men, women, and children fleeing across the southern U.S. border.
He called the ongoing crisis a “human tragedy,” saying it amounted to a “humanitarian crisis,” and lamented the culture of death that has killed so many in Central America — comments that come as United States immigration agents launch a new wave of raids to detain asylum-seekers and deport them back to to the volatile region.
“Being faced with so many legal vacuums, [Central American migrants] get caught up in a web that ensnares and always destroys the poorest,” the pope said. “Injustice is radicalized in the young. They are 'cannon fodder,' persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs.”
“Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts like the Ninevites, open to his call heard in the suffering faces of countless men and women,” he said, referencing scripture. “No more death! No more exploitation!”
But like most of Francis’ high-profile visits, it was his actions — not just his words — that spoke the loudest. The most powerful moment of the evening arguably came just before the Mass, when the pontiff ascended a ramp along the Rio Grande river that divides the two countries. After a moment, he stopped, folded his hands, and prayed before a smattering of makeshift crosses erected as a memorial to the thousands of migrants who have died attempting to cross into the United States. He then turned to a group of about 400 people standing across the river in El Paso, Texas — many of them refugees from violence-ridden Central America seeking asylum in the United States — and blessed them.
As he prayed, the crowd of 200,000 Mexican worshippers watched in silence. Across the river, U.S. border agents watched through binoculars.
Among the crowd on the Mexico side of the fence was Ezzie Dominguez, a Denver resident who immigrated to San Antonio, Texas in 1993 along with her mother and 14 siblings. She told ThinkProgress that she traveled to the see the pope as part of a two-part delegation of female immigration activists — one that met in El Paso, Texas and one that marched across the border into Mexico in what participants called a pilgrimage. The gathering was organized by We Belong Together, a campaign for immigrant rights that is supporting a petition asking the Obama administration to be more compassionate in its treatment of immigrants.
“In a time when refugee families and children are being ripped from their homes, locked up in prisons, and deported to life-threatening violence, we will walk with the hope that each step we take will bring us one step closer to Pope Francis’ vision of a nation that truly welcomes the stranger,” a statement from the group read.
Dominguez explained that her desire to meet the pope at the border stemmed from her own experience as an immigrant, as well as the ongoing plight of her husband, who is undocumented.
“I’m a cancer survivor, and my husband has been my rock,” she said, her voice cracking from emotion. “He’s been in this country for almost 17 years — he knows the rules, knows the language, knows the law. If there is anyone who deserves to be a citizen, it’s that man.”
She said she hoped Pope Francis would lift up the voices of people like her husband, who often live in fear of being deported for the smallest infraction.
“We’re trying to call on the pope as a global moral leader,” Dominguez, who is Catholic, said. “For the pope to carry that message to our leader, to tell them to be welcome to all immigrants, for him to carry that message of hope — for me that’s an inspiration as a woman to follow that leadership.”
“When he speaks, people listen,” she added.
Indeed, Francis, the first Argentinian pope, has been a consistent champion of immigrants and immigrant rights since ascending to the papacy in 2013. He has condemned rhetoric that demonizes migrants, showered 2,000 unsuspecting immigrants with Christmas presents, and visited an island sanctuary for North African migrants as his first visit outside of the Vatican as pope.
Francis has also weighed in on America’s specific immigration issues: He sent a personal letter in 2015 to Arizona teens who assisted immigrants, and called on American lawmakers to respond to an influx of migrants “in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal” during historic address to U.S. Congress last summer.
“On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,” he told Congress. “Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. … Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
This message resonates with people like Monique Nguyen, executive director of human rights group MataHari and participant in the We Belong Together pilgrimage, who joined the Wednesday’s border mass from the U.S. side. The child of Vietnam War refugees, Nguyen and her family lived as undocumented immigrants for 15 years, and hopes the pope’s words — and his border visit — can bring much-needed moral weight to the cause of immigration reform.
“When Pope Francis addressed congress, he stirred up some feelings for a lot of people who had legislatures who are inactive on this issue,” she said. “We’re just hoping for more of that, and hoping that we can shed light on that too.”