CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — As the United States heads into an election cycle in which immigration reform is destined to be a voting issue, Pope Francis made a politically charged stop at the US-Mexico border Wednesday to highlight what he called the “human tragedy” faced by migrants.
The pope said the world can no longer deny the crisis generated by untold numbers of people who have crossed deserts, mountains, and inhospitable zones, by whatever means necessary, to flee violence and poverty.
“The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today,” Francis said during his homily at a Mass for migrants and victims of violence. “This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want to instead measure with names, stories, families.”
Those forced to migrate today, Francis said, are “brothers and sisters excluded as a result of poverty and violence, drug trafficking and criminal organizations.”
In a dramatic gesture before the Mass, Francis stopped at the border, walking up a ramp lined with yellow flowers to a specially built platform facing across the fence toward the United States. Next to a giant crucifix, he made three signs of the cross and blessed hundreds of people gathered a few yards away in El Paso on the US side. The three blessings were for the diocese of El Paso, one for Juárez, and one for Las Cruces, New Mexico, considered part of a common metropolitan area on the border.
Several US bishops, including Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, and El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz, concelebrated the Mass with Francis, symbolically answering the pope’s call to make immigrants a priority.
Juárez is no longer the Mexican capital of crime, as it was known not long ago, but it still is the destination of choice for thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans who want to flee their countries for the United States.
By addressing the issue of migration in Ciudad Juárez, Francis answered the prayers of many of those who were at the Mass, such as Jorge, a 26-year-old from El Salvador, who’s been waiting for “the right opportunity” to join some members of his family who have settled in Chicago.
“I hope his words can open the hearts of those who want to put up a fence instead of opening the doors,” Jorge told Crux before the Mass started.
“I’m not a criminal, I’m not a rapist, I’m a medical doctor who’s seen to many friends and family members killed by the maras,” he said, referring to Central American drug gangs.
Jorge is only one of hundreds who continue to flee the surge of violence in the three countries that make up the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In 2014, the violence in Jorge’s nation rivaled that of Syria, by then already a stronghold of Islamic terror.
Young migrants, Francis said in his homily, become “cannon fodder,” persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs.
“Then there are the many women unjustly robbed of their lives,” Francis said. This is particularly significant in Ciudad Juárez, a city that in the late 1990s and early 2000s saw at least 700 women killed in a wave of “feminicides.”
More than 200,000 people attended the Mass Francis celebrated in the “fair area” of Ciudad Juárez, a site within walking distance of the fence that divides the city from Texas. Another 50,000 joined from El Paso.
Juárez is the fifth largest city in Mexico. Land of the burrito and the Margarita, it’s also home to the largest United States consulate, which receives more visa applications than any other place in the world.
Those who see their requests rejected often fall prey to human traffickers and organized crime.
When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — condemned his city’s clandestine sewing shops where hundreds of Peruvians, Paraguayans, and migrants from other countries where forced to work in slave-like conditions.
During the Mass he celebrated in Juárez, he said that for those trying to reach the United States, each step is laden with grave injustices: “the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted; so many of these brothers and sisters of ours are the consequence of a trade in human beings.”
“No more death! No more exploitation!” Francis decried. “There is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance, time to implore the mercy of God.”
The pope also thanked the men and women religious, priests, and laypeople who are “in the front lines, often risking their own lives,” to help migrants and defending life. He also had words of appreciation for civil organizations working to support the rights of migrants.
Before closing his homily, Francis spoke to those who joined the Mass from the Sun Bowl, the stadium of the University of El Paso.
Francis thanked those who participated in the celebration, many of them immigrants, saying: “With the help of technology, we can pray, sign, and celebrate together the merciful love that God gives us, and that no border can prevent us from sharing.”
As the crowd in the stadium cheered, he said, “Thank you, brothers and sisters in El Paso, for making us feel like one family and one Christian community.”