Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, was a priest and auxiliary bishop in Dallas before taking his present post in May 2013, and in a state boasting the second-highest number of electoral college votes in the country in every presidential election, he understands a thing or two about politics.
Perhaps that’s why Seitz avoids a straight “yes” or “no” when asked if Pope Francis is making a political point by coming to the US/Mexico border on Feb. 17, where at one stage he’ll stand about 65 yards away from the barrier separating Seitz’s diocese from neighboring Ciudad Juárez.
“It’s not wrong to think the pope is coming to the border to make a statement about the human dignity of immigrants,” Seitz told Crux, acknowledging that such a statement has clear political consequences.
“It’s the Church’s role to speak to the human face of people who are struggling, to try and free them from our tendency to make them a number and [depict them] as some kind of threat to our way of life,” Seitz said.
“It’s our role to see them as individuals and to understand their experience,” he said, “and ultimately to see the face of Christ in them.”
Yet, Seitz insisted, that doesn’t mean Francis is coming in order to inject himself into the presidential primaries or the politics of 2016.
“The primaries are totally beside the point,” he said. “It just happens that they’re going on when he’s making this trip.”
Seitz, 62, was one of Francis’ first appointments in the United States, named just two months after the new pope’s election. He’s emerged as a leading advocate for immigrant rights, among other things taking part in a special Mass at the border conducted by US bishops in 2014 and led by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston.
He told Crux he hopes the pope’s visit will shine a spotlight on the realities of the immigrant experience today, because he said it’s no longer what many Americans assume.
“The reality is that the migrants we’re seeing today are not leaving in search of a better financial situation,” he said. “They’re not leaving abject poverty, but threats to life and limb.”
Seitz said many of the immigrants arriving at the border today come from the Northern Triangle area of Central America formed by the intersection of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, an essentially lawless region where real power is held by narco-terrorists and criminal gangs.
“They’ve suffered violence that we in the United States can hardly even imagine,” he said. “There are really no laws, no rules. Children are co-opted into the gangs … girls are used sexually, boys are forced to do criminal acts, and their mothers and fathers are killed.
“During their journeys they’re abused and violated in every possible way, and sometimes they’re killed,” he said.
Once they arrive in the United States, he said, their troubles are hardly over.
“They’re often pressured into expedited removal and then thrown right back into the situation they fled,” he said. “If they manage to resist that pressure, they’re put into jail.”
“They often have to go through deportation hearings without legal representation,” he said. “That’s true of unaccompanied minors as well as adults, who find themselves in courtrooms in a language they don’t understand.”
“That’s the ‘justice’ they face,” he said. “They’re given no opportunity to explain that they’re not really illegal immigrants, but legal,” noting that both US and international law afford refugees fleeing violence and persecution a right of asylum.
In that context, he said, the pope’s presence means everything.
“If you can put yourself in the place of a person who has gone through the experiences I described … to have the most respected person in the world saying, ‘I care about you, you’re important to me, you are a child of God’ … it gives them hope, it restores their sense of self-worth and value,” he said.
Seitz said he’s not “naively optimistic” that the pope’s visit will immediately change the political calculus on immigration reform, but said he hopes it may at least reframe perceptions.
“I hope it will be an opportunity for people in our country to take a second look, to detach themselves from knee-jerk reactions based on false characterizations of what’s really happening here on the border,” he said.
One way Seitz plans to help introduce Pope Francis to those realities is by assembling a group of some 600 people, all with their own stories to tell, to greet the pope when he approaches the border for a prayer and blessing.
Featuring migrants, refugees, victims of violence, unaccompanied minors, seasonal farmworkers, people awaiting deportation, and the poor, Seitz is calling these guests “Pope Francis VIPs.” They’ll be assembled on a small strip of land immediately across the border on the US side, within shouting distance of the pope.
To accommodate the much larger swath of people on the US side who want to be part of the experience, a special program has been organized for Feb. 17 in El Paso’s Sun Bowl Stadium. One highlight will come when Pope Francis will extend a greeting to people in the stadium from Ciudad Juárez.
The stadium has a capacity of 51,000, and Seitz said he’d love to see it full, but conceded “that’s a difficult goal to reach because of the limited time we’ve had to sell tickets.”
Organizers say they would have preferred to make admission free, but they have to cover costs for an unbudgeted expense. Tickets are being sold for $10 for Catholic parishioners in El Paso, and $15 for everybody else.
Seitz himself won’t be on hand, since he’ll be across the border as part of the group hosting the pontiff — symbolizing, he said, that while on maps El Paso, Ciudad Juárez, and nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico, may look like separate entities, on the ground “we see the people on the other side of the border not as aliens, but as brothers and sisters with whom we share our lives.”
He said he hopes that’s another fruit of the pope’s border stop: Showcasing what life on the border is really like.
“This trip is a chance for the world to see a place that’s pretty unique, and perhaps the rest of the world can benefit from seeing how we live in this region and what a border means to us,” he said.
Last December, Seitz and Bishop Jose Guadalupe Torres of Ciudad Juárez met on the Santa Fe bridge connecting the two cities. Torres said on that occasion, “Para expresar la unidad de dos paises, pero de un solo pueblo,” meaning, “We’re here to express the unity of two countries, but a single community.”
“A border doesn’t have to be a place of threat,” Seitz said. “It can also be a place of encounter.”