EL PASO — If certain US politicians had their way, “the border” would conjure up images of rapists and drug dealers freely flowing into the United States, taking US jobs, sticking out their hands for government checks.
But some of those who live and work in this border city say that notion is all wrong, and they’re hoping Pope Francis’ visit just across the Rio Grande in Juarez, Mexico, will show another side to life here — and give voice to those who say they are forced to live in the shadows.
“People who cross the border to live in the United States have something to teach this country,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute, an organization that works with border dioceses in the United States and Mexico to bring a Catholic voice to public policies on workers’ rights, immigration, and criminal justice reform.
“For the pope, people who live a border existence aren’t just victims of policy. Those people aren’t just throwaways,” he said. “They’re prophets of a better future.”
“They give witness to the values that are deeper than materialism or the individualism that’s affecting our culture. They give witness to values of faith and family and the belief in a better future and the belief in community,” he continued.
Some of those who entered the United States illegally years ago, but who have raised children and built lives here, say they aren’t looking for handouts, but simply a chance to live without fear.
“We who have children here deserve to have a shot, because we think we have something to contribute, something to help make this a better country,” said Claudia Diaz, who has lived in El Paso since 2000.
“We’re not victims, we’re fighters,” added Susanna Herrera, a resident of El Paso since 2002. “They say we come to take American jobs, but who is going to wash bathrooms or clean houses for $20?”
Still, Herrera said her life in the United States is often colored by anxiety about being deported back to Mexico.
“I’m always hopeful that God will protect me, but my children are fearful that one day they will come and take me,” she said. “You go outside your house, but you never know if you’re going to come back.”
Immigration to the United States from Mexico has fallen in recent years, in part because Mexico’s economy has improved and violence related to the drug war has dropped. But a surge in gang violence in Central America prompted record numbers of women and children to seek safe passage into the United States through Mexico.
And critics say the militarization of the border has created a situation ripe for abuse, where thousands find themselves stuck in a system of private prisons for years on end.
“Some of these people come from countries where they have no rights,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. So his organization works with 1,000 families who live along the border to get the message out that simply by being on US soil, they have the right to make their case to a judge.
When it comes to the politics of immigration, Diaz and Herrera, who will both be part of a cross-border papal prayer service Wednesday, say extreme rhetoric has real consequences for those living here.
“With Mr. Trump, we’re seeing even more hatred against the migrant community,” Diaz said. “We see more and more proposals, in New Mexico and in Texas and right here in El Paso, that are anti-immigrant and it affects us.”
Trump, who has called for building a wall along the US-Mexico border and also preventing Muslims from entering the United States, slammed Pope Francis last week for being “political” and questioning if he understood the border situation.
A Vatican spokesman responded Tuesday, calling Trump’s remarks “very strange” and saying the pope’s concern for migrants is universal.
“The pope always talks about migration problems all around the world, of the duties we have to solve these problems in a humane manner, of hosting those who come from other countries in search of a life of dignity and peace,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, who is traveling with the pope during his six-day tour of Mexico.
Lombardi said the pope makes very similar comments to European leaders, which “Trump would know if he came to Europe.”
Diaz said undocumented immigrants aren’t seeking additional benefits, but just want to be left alone.
“We’re not asking to give us anything more, but don’t take away what we’ve accomplished here,” she said.
“I hope Pope Francis speaks to the hearts not just of politicians, but of all people who are fostering racism against migrants,” Herrera said.
She said she doesn’t think people understand the sacrifices families make to cross the border illegally, tearfully recalling that she had not seen her father for nearly a decade before his death in 2013, afraid to cross the border and not be allowed back in.
“I was only able to talk to him by telephone. I know sometimes you have to sacrifice things for your children,” she said. “You then ask yourself if it is all really worth it.”
Corbett thinks Francis’ emphasis on the margins of society — those excluded by geographic boundaries or economic inequality — will, decades from now, craft his legacy as “the pope of borders.”
In the meantime, he hopes the pope’s visit to Juarez will cut through the noise of the US immigration debate and convince policymakers in Washington to reconsider how they view the border, not as a problem to be solved, but as a source of wisdom and inspiration.
“We need to be attentive and listen to the borders,” he said. “The border is a place where we can define our country, it’s a place where can we define our future, it’s a gift to the country, to both countries.”