Pope Francis will hold a prayer service at the border when he visits Mexico next month, and among the participants will be migrants — some undocumented — gathered just 65 feet away on the US side of the divide.
New details were released Friday about what promises to be a politically potent visit to the US-Mexico border Feb. 12 to 17. It comes at a time when President Barack Obama faces fresh criticism from liberal members of his own party about renewed raids on undocumented families, set against the backdrop of increasingly hostile rhetoric from some GOP candidates about US immigration policy.
The pope’s visit will conclude with an outdoor Mass in Juarez. Behind the altar, the fence that separates the two nations will be visible.
Before the Mass begins, however, Francis is expected to walk to the edge of the Rio Grande, the river that separates the two nations, kneel, and pray for the more than 6,000 people who lost their lives trying to cross the border in the past 15 years.
Across the river in El Paso will be a group of a few hundred people, including undocumented women and children from Central America.
Event organizers had hoped for a larger gathering on the US side of the border, but decided instead to show a live stream of the event in nearby Sun Bowl Stadium. It’s expected that Pope Francis will address the crowd gathered there during the Mass.
“We are working with federal agencies to have a modest border gathering of refugees and victims of violence to receive a blessing from Pope Francis. We refer to the group as our ‘Francis VIPs,'” the diocese said Friday. “These will be the very people that the Pope is coming to celebrate. Through the Holy Father’s visit, we hope to shine light on our local migrants and refugees, highlighting the beautiful collaboration our border communities have established in order to serve all of our brothers and sisters.”
The head of a Catholic community organizing group that is helping to plan the event said it will be an opportunity for those who made it across the border to remember those who didn’t survive the journey.
“When Pope Francis comes to our border to recall all those who perished, hundreds of migrants will be there to welcome him on the this side of the Rio Grande, in solidarity with a Latin American pope who defines himself as a migrant,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute.
Francis’ border visit is expected to draw renewed attention to the heated immigration debate in the United States.
Frontrunner Donald Trump has said that if elected, he will deport nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and he made waves when he falsely accused Mexico of sending “rapists” across the border. He also said he will build a wall along the entire 1,933-mile border — and that he’d get Mexico to pay for it.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, launched a series of raids on undocumented families earlier this month, leading to an increase in deportations. The administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president, at a time when migration to the United States is falling.
Pope Francis has made immigration a key pillar of his papacy, calling attention to the crisis facing Europe that saw more than 1 million people seek entry to the continent in 2015 alone.
In his September address to the US Congress, Francis said lawmakers should be led by “the golden rule” when it comes to immigration policy, and “respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal.”
He noted that “thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones” and urged lawmakers “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.”
Leading up to his September visit, Francis said he wanted to enter via the Mexico border, but security and logistical challenges proved too complicated. Instead, he traveled first to Cuba and flew to Washington from Havana.