EL PASO, Texas ( Associated Press) – With a cheerful “I Marcos” in Spanish, Bishop Mark Seitz introduced himself to migrants eating soup at a shelter on the grounds of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso. , less than 3 kilometers (2 mi) from the border with Mexico.
The immigration crisis affecting that region is in the backyard of the new chairman of the United States Conference of Bishops’ immigration commission, a ministry begun a century ago. Seitz would be the first Border bishop to serve in the role in at least two decades, saying it would allow him to “bring a new energy to this work that sees it on an almost daily basis.”
Seitz told The Associated Press a few days before Christmas, “Immigrants have the experience of leaving behind everything that helps them feel at home and safe in this life, and to rely entirely on God during the journey.” “They have much to teach us about how God will accompany us on our journey.”
In the simple shelter that day, 65 migrants, mostly Nicaraguans, rested after being released by US immigration officials. Volunteers helped organize families to contact sponsors in different parts of the United States, with items ranging from new clothes and plane tickets to small shampoo packages to carry through airport security. Needs included.
On both sides of the border, religious organizations have historically been the ones that have done most of the care for migrants. Their labors are especially visible when record numbers of new arrivals overwhelm local and federal officials in cities like El Paso, with thousands pouring into the streets.
Often the Catholic Church leads these humanitarian efforts. Caring for migrants and refugees has been a priority for Pope Francis, who said in December that the Virgin of Guadalupe, much loved by Latin American parishioners, moves “in the midst of a caravan seeking freedom to the north”. .
The Vatican, Catholic non-profit organizations and bishops’ conferences around the world cooperate in lobbying at all political levels for “fair and humane policies,” said Bill Caney, who is the head of migration and refugees at the United States Conference of Bishops (USCCB). Head of the Service Department. ,
Caney further said that frontline bishops like Seitz are “vitally important” to that mission because they provide “real-time perspective.”
Steven Millis, a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the political activism of American bishops stems from their mission to care for the most vulnerable. However, Millis said the USCCB appears more visible in the fight against abortion and other “culture wars” than it is embroiled in partisan divisions that may undermine its activism for other causes.
For Seitz, who was elected chair of the migration commission for a year before starting his three-year term in November, a stronger and more nuanced Catholic response to migration “could be something that brings life to the Church.” “
“I think most people will be surprised, and I hope they will be pleasantly surprised, by the degree of unanimity among bishops on this immigration issue,” Seitz said. “So many bishops have come to me and expressed … a concern about how we need to do better to welcome (migrants).”
A native of Milwaukee and bishop of El Paso over the past decade — when three US governments struggled to handle a surge in arrivals from families from Central America and beyond — Seitz knows firsthand the challenges.
Speaking with the Associated Press, he was informed that the Supreme Court had struck down the restrictions imposed on asylum seekers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, known as Title 42.
Seitz was working with other churches and civic officials amid expectations of “a scenario where (border) crossings could be in greater numbers than we’ve ever seen”, if the December 21 event takes place as anticipated. Sanctions were lifted, but a moratorium was ordered. The Supreme Court did not give any relief.
“These are not, by definition, people who can apply and wait five years to cross over,” Seitz said. “And right now we’re not even asking those questions with Title 42. We’re not asking, ‘Why did you come here?’ All we say is, ‘Turn and go back somewhere.’ And we’re sending them to some of the most unstable and dangerous places in the world.”
Places like Ciudad Juarez, a sprawling Mexican metropolis bordering El Paso, where thousands of migrants were forced to wait for an appointment in the United States to review their asylum claims during the administration of President Donald Trump, And recently it has been banned in many places. Title 42, among organized crime cartels who often take advantage of them.
Seitz created a relief fund that donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly for food and medicine, to shelters there. In the fall of 2022, he helped open a clinic at the largest migrant shelter in Juarez, said Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Borders Institute, a Catholic Worker body that runs the clinic.
“It’s really tough, because patterns and policies are constantly evolving,” Corbett said. “We are in a very serious situation at the border.”
Even with Title 42 in effect, US agents have caught and released more than 50,000 asylum seekers in El Paso since October 2022, said Father Michael Gallagher, a Jesuit priest and lawyer.
Gallagher said, “Bishop Seitz urged parishes to open vacant spaces” such as classrooms to serve as temporary shelters. His downtown church, Temple of the Sacred Heart, houses about 200 migrants each night in the gym.
“As a people Jesus and the gospel have called us to serve … it seems ideal to us,” Seitz explained.
His ministry extends beyond the shelters. For more than a year he has been celebrating mass at a federal shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors, and he wears friendship bracelets woven by some of them on his right wrist.
He has just added another, from a trip to Guatemala in mid-December 2022, to find out from grassroots organizations why so many people decide to make the perilous journey north.
This is one area where Seitz believes the bishops’ conference can have an impact, providing guidance on how the United States can facilitate stability and job creation in countries of origin.
Another priority for Seitz pertains to the church’s role in creating better understanding between Americans and new immigrants across the border.
“Why do we look at them and say, ‘I think they’re probably criminals,’ instead of looking at them and saying, ‘I think they’re probably people in need,'” Seitz said. believing that “there is a more systematic process for people to be able to cross over.”
His recommendation begins with a simple task: Encourage parishioners to attend Masses in Spanish, which are becoming more common across the United States, and meet migrant believers coming to church.
“In that one simple act, you will be doing more than you can imagine to help us welcome and integrate the people who join us into our communities,” Seitz said.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage is supported through the Associated Press’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. Associated Press is solely responsible for this content.