EL PASO, Texas (AP) — With a cheerful “I’m Marcos” in Spanish, Bishop Mark Seitz introduced himself to migrants eating soup at the shelter on the grounds of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso. , less than 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the border with Mexico.
The immigration crisis affecting that region is literally in the backyard of the new president of the immigration commission of the United States Conference of Bishops, a ministry begun a century ago. Seitz will be the first border bishop to serve in this role in at least two decades, saying it will allow him to bring “a new energy to this work from someone who sees it on an almost daily basis.”RELATED
“Immigrants have had the experience of leaving behind everything that helped them feel at home and safe in this life, and to be completely dependent on God as they journey,” Seitz told The Associated Press a few days before the Christmas. “They have a lot 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 the US immigration authorities. Volunteers helped families organize to contact sponsors in various parts of the United States, covering needs ranging from getting new clothes and plane tickets to packages of shampoo small enough to carry through airport security.
On both sides of the border, religious organizations have historically been the ones that have done most of the work in caring for migrants. Their labors are especially visible when record numbers of new arrivals overwhelm local and federal authorities in cities like El Paso, with thousands of them pouring onto the streets.
Often the Catholic Church leads these humanitarian efforts. Caring for migrants and refugees has been a priority for Pope Francis, who in December said that the Virgin of Guadalupe, much loved by Latin American parishioners, advances “in the midst of caravans seeking freedom on their way north.” ”.
The Vatican, Catholic nonprofit organizations and bishops’ conferences around the world collaborate to lobby at all political levels for “fair and humane policies,” said Bill Canny, who heads the Department of Migration and Refugee Services at the United States Conference of Bishops (USCCB).
Border bishops like Seitz are “crucially important” to that mission because they provide a “real-time perspective,” Canny added.
The political activism of the US bishops stems from their mission to care for the most vulnerable, said Steven Millies, a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. However, Millies said the USCCB tends to be more visible in the fight against abortion and other “culture wars,” embroiled in partisan divisions that can undermine its activism for other causes.
For Seitz, who was chair-elect of the migration commission for a year before beginning his three-year term in November, a stronger and more nuanced Catholic response to migration “can be something that brings life to the Church.”
“I think most people would be surprised, and I hope they would be pleasantly surprised, to see the degree of unanimity among the bishops on this immigration issue,” Seitz stated. “So many of the 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 for the past decade — as three US governments struggled to handle increases in arrivals of families from Central America and beyond — Seitz knows the challenges firsthand.
While speaking with the AP, he was notified that the Supreme Court had issued a stay of restrictions on asylum seekers put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, known as Title 42.
Seitz had been working with other churches and civil authorities amid expectations of “a scenario where there could be (border) crossings in higher numbers than we’ve ever seen” if restrictions were lifted on December 21 as anticipated, but the postponement ordered by the highest court provided no relief.
“These are, by definition, not the kind of people who can apply and wait five years to cross,” Seitz said. “And right now we’re not even asking those questions with Title 42. We’re not asking, ‘Why did you come here?’ We just say, ‘Turn around and go back somewhere.’ And we are sending them to some of the most unstable and dangerous places in the world.”
Places like Ciudad Juárez, a huge 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 more have been recently on hold due to Title 42, in the midst of organized crime cartels that 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 Juárez, said Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute, a Catholic activist body that runs the clinic.
“It’s really difficult, because the patterns and the 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 apprehended and released more than 50,000 asylum seekers in El Paso since October 2022, said Father Michael Gallagher, a Jesuit priest and attorney.
“Bishop Seitz urged parishes to open up empty spaces” such as classrooms to serve as temporary shelters, Gallagher added. His church in the center of the city, the Temple of the Sacred Heart, has been housing nearly 200 migrants each night in the gym.
“As people that Jesus and the Gospel have called us to serve … this sounds ideal for us,” Seitz explained.
His ministry extends beyond shelters. For more than a year she has been celebrating Mass at a federal shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors, and she wears friendship bracelets woven by some of them on her right wrist.
He has just added another, from a trip he made to Guatemala in mid-December 2022 to find out from grassroots organizations what makes so many people decide to head north on a dangerous journey.
That is an area where Seitz believes the episcopal 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 concerns the Church’s role in building better understanding between Americans across the border and new immigrants.
“Why do we tend to look at them and say, ‘I think they’re probably criminals,’ instead of looking at them and say, ‘I think they’re probably people in need,'” Seitz said, adding that he also believes that there is “a more orderly process for people to be able to cross.”
His recommendation begins with a simple act: Encourage parishioners to attend masses in Spanish, which are becoming more common throughout the United States, and meet the migrant faithful who come to the temple.
“In that one simple act, you will be doing much more than you could ever imagine to help us welcome and integrate people who are joining our communities,” Seitz stated.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage is supported through the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.