Border bishop takes lead role in Catholic migrant service

Border bishop takes lead role in Catholic migrant service

EL PASO, Texas (AP) – With a cheerful “soya Marcos” – “I’m Mark,” in Spanish – Bishop Mark Seitz introduced himself to migrants eating soup at the shelter on the property of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, less than two miles from the US-Mexico border.

The migration crisis is ravaging the border countries is literally in the backyard of the new chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration Committee, a ministry started a century ago. Seitz will be the first border bishop to serve in this role in at least two decades; he says it will allow him to bring “a new energy to this work from someone who sees it pretty much every day.”

“Immigrants have had the experience of leaving behind everything that helped them feel at home and safe in this life, and to trust God completely as they travel,” Seitz told The Associated Press a few days before Christmas. “They have so much to teach us about how God will accompany us on our journey.”

In the simple shelter that day, 65 migrants, mostly Nicaraguans, were resting after being released by US immigration officials. Volunteers helped families make arrangements to reach sponsors across the United States—from new clothes to plane tickets to shampoo packages small enough to carry past airport security.

El Paso’s role in the migration crisis will be highlighted on Sunday when it becomes Joe Biden’s destination on his first trip to the southern border as president.

On both sides of the border, faith-based organizations have historically done most of the work in caring for migrants. Their efforts are especially visible when unprecedented numbers of new arrivals overwhelm local and federal authorities in cities like El Paso, leaving thousands on the streets.

The Catholic Church often leads these humanitarian efforts. Serving migrants and refugees has been a priority for Pope Franciswhich in December referred to the Virgin of Guadalupe, much loved among Latin American believers, as “in the middle of the caravans seeking freedoms that go north.”

The Vatican, Catholic nonprofits and bishops’ conferences around the world are working together to advocate at all political levels “for just and humane policies,” said Bill Canny, who heads the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services Division.

Border bishops like Seitz are “critically important” to that mission because they provide “a real-time perspective,” Canny added.

The political advocacy of American 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 most visible in its fight against abortion and other “culture wars,” and gets embroiled in partisan divisions that can undermine its advocacy for other causes.

For Seitz, who was chairman-elect of the migration committee 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 the church to life”.

“I think most people would be surprised, and I hope pleasantly surprised, to see the degree of unanimity among the bishops on this issue of immigration,” Seitz said. “So many of the bishops have come to me and expressed … a concern about how we need to do better to receive (migrants).”

A Milwaukee native who served as bishop of El Paso for the past decade — which saw three U.S. administrations struggle to deal with waves of family arrivals from Central America and beyond — Seitz knows the challenges firsthand.

When he spoke to the AP, he was notified that the Supreme Court had issued a stay on pandemic-era restrictions on asylum seekers.

Seitz had been working with churches and civil authorities “for a scenario where higher numbers could come across than we’ve ever seen” if restrictions were lifted as expected on December 21 – but the stay brought no relief.

“These are not, by definition, the kind of people who can apply and wait five years to be able to cross,” Seitz said. “And we’re not even asking those questions right now with Title 42. We’re not asking, why did you come? We simply say, turn around and go back somewhere. And we send them to some of the more unstable and dangerous places in the world.”

Places like Ciudad Juarez, a sprawling metropolis just across the border from El Paso, where thousands of migrants were forced to wait for their US asylum deals under the Trump administration and more have been waiting for Title 42 recently, amid organized crime cartels that routinely prey. on them.

Seitz set up a relief fund that donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially for food and medicine, to shelters there. This fall, it helped open a medical clinic in Juarez’s largest refugee sheltersaid Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute, which manages the clinic.

“It’s very difficult, because patterns and guidelines are constantly evolving,” Corbett said. – We are in an acute situation at the border.

Even with Title 42 in place, U.S. officials detained and released more than 50,000 asylum seekers in El Paso as of early October, said the Rev. Michael Gallagher, a Jesuit priest and attorney.

“Bishop Seitz encouraged congregations to open up empty rooms” like halls as temporary shelters, Gallagher added. His downtown church, Sacred Heart, has hosted nearly 200 migrants each night in its gym.

“As people who have been called by Jesus and the gospel to serve … this sounds like it’s right up our alley,” explained Seitz.

His ministry extends beyond shelter. For more than a year, he has been celebrating Mass at a federal shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors and he has on his right wrist friendship bracelets woven by some of them.

He just added a new one, from a mid-December trip to Guatemala to learn from grassroots organizations what is pushing so many people on their perilous journey north.

It is an area where Seitz believes the bishops’ conference can have an impact, and provide guidance on how the US can facilitate stability and job creation in countries of origin.

Another priority for Seitz focuses on the church’s role in building better understanding between Americans far beyond the borderlands 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 sees a need for “a more orderly process for people to be able to cross.”

His advice starts small – encouraging the faithful to attend Spanish-language Masses, which are increasingly common across the countryand meet migrant churchgoers.

“In that simple act, you will accomplish much more than you could imagine in helping us welcome and integrate the people who join our communities,” Seitz said.

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Associated Press religion coverage is supported through AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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