NEW YORK – When Bishop Mark Seitz arrived to El Paso in 2013, he realized that most people don’t understand life on the United States-Mexico border. Growing up in Milwaukee, Seitz acknowledges that he didn’t either.
“When people come here they’re really shocked that we are so interconnected and that we are interdependent as well,” Seitz told Crux. “Our families live as I like to say with one foot on each side of the border. The reality is different than what people imagine.”
That’s why Seitz is calling on President Joe Biden to engage at the border so the reality can guide policy decisions.
“That’s the way the church ought to work. Recognizing what is happening on the ground in real people’s lives. Not speaking in abstractions, not developing answers on the bureaucratic level without really knowing the reality,” he said. “We need to recognize that people living that reality have a great capacity for finding ways to make things better because they know best.”
The El Paso bishop joined Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, Bishop Edward Wiesenberger of Tucson, retired Bishop Ricardo Ramírez of Las Cruces, and organizations like the Hope Border Institute, Kino Border Initiative and Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico in sending a letter to the new president calling on him to help the country to “re-learn to see those who continue to flee to the border as neighbors in need.”
In the letter, the signatories write that “we must urgently begin a new process of mutual engagement that allows us to rediscover as sisters and brothers those whose dreams have been shattered by broken immigration policy.”
“And we must come to see as citizens of a common home those in Mexico and Central America who imagine a future where their children are offered security and hope,” it continues.
Seitz says El Paso is still what the city’s name stands for: “El Paso Del Norte,” or “The Pass of the North.”
“You would be hard pressed to find a family in El Paso that doesn’t have family in Ciudad Juárez [on the Mexican side of the border]. You’d be hard pressed to find family that doesn’t send children to school on one side of the border or the other. The reality is it goes both ways,” Seitz said.
But there’s also the reality of life in Ciudad Juárez for thousands of immigrants waiting for possible asylum. Families stuck on the Mexico side have a hard time accessing education, housing, healthcare and staving off COVID-19 with crowded living conditions, Father Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, told Crux.
The Migrant Protection Protocols policy – a program that keeps asylum seekers on the Mexico side of the border – is the main reason why. Biden suspended the policy with an executive order last week, but Carroll argues that doesn’t give asylum seekers immediate relief.
“President Biden ended the MPP for migrants affected in the future, but hasn’t made any decision yet for the thousands of migrants who were sent back under the MPP to Mexico and are waiting along the border,” Carroll said. “It’s extremely important that they be able to access the asylum process and present their case and do that in a reasonable amount of time.”
Seitz argues asylum is a “fundamental human right.”
“When you’re running for your life and need to leave your country because of threats against yourself or your children, which is the case for thousands in South America, you can’t just send in a petition and wait six months. You have to be able to go and find some kind of refuge,” he said.
Drawing on a message from Pope Francis’s book Let Us Dream, a framework for change was sent to the Biden Administration earlier this month that calls for protection over deterrence at the border, and a re-imagining of immigration policy, in addition to asylum.
For ways everyday Christians can help, Seitz looks to a famous Dr. Seuss story.
“I’m reminded of the Doctor Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who! He’s an elephant with ears that can hear people crying, that can hear people calling out, announcing to people their reality and most of the world can’t hear them. I think we as Christians have a responsibility to have good hearing and to recognize people who don’t have a voice but are in great need,” he said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg