At U.S.-Mexico border, Pope Francis calls migrant crisis a ‘human tragedy’

Pope Francis stands along the banks of the Rio Grande in Juarez, Mexico, as he places flowers near the U.S.-Mexico boarder on Feb. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Pope Francis stood in solidarity with the thousands of Latin Americans forced to migrate to the United States as he celebrated Mass in what was once of the world’s deadliest cities, Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, on the U.S.-Mexico border. The plight of an ever-increasing number of migrants who risk extortion, rape and sometimes their lives on the journeys north is, he said, a “human tragedy.”

According to Tico Times, the pope climbed a ramp facing the Rio Grande that separates Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas, before celebrating Mass with a crowd of more than 300,000 on the Juárez side of the border, with tens of thousands more following it on a giant screen in an El Paso stadium.

“We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis, which in recent years has meant the migration of thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones,” he told the crowd.

Immigration reform remains one of the most polarizing issues in U.S. politics, and the pope’s stance starkly contrasts the anti-immigrant rhetoric of GOP candidates for the 2016 U.S. presidential nomination.

These differences were highlighted in an ensuing debate between the Pope and a few frontrunning Republican candidates, beginning with Trump last week calling the pope “a very political person” for visiting areas close to the United States’ border of Mexico during an upcoming trip. He also suggested that Pope Francis was serving as a pawn for the Mexican government, and that “Mexico got him to do it because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is because they’re making a fortune and we’re losing.”

In the Republican primary race, Trump has threatened to revoke birthright citizenship for children of unauthorized migrants, according to the Washington Post, and build a multibillion-dollar wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Meanwhile, many church observers say that the pope, the son of Italian immigrant himself, places special importance on immigrant rights.

According to the Weekly Standard, when a reporter told the pope about Trump’s plans to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall and deport millions of illegal immigrants, Pope Francis replied, “I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that.”

GOP candidate Marco Rubio responded, “Vatican City controls who comes in, when they come in, and how they come in as a city-state, and as a result the United States has a right to do that as well.”

Donald Trump called the pope’s remarks “disgraceful,” and said, “no leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

Many have interpreted the pope’s words to suggest that anyone who takes Trump’s position on immigration is not a Christian, which will likely insult many church observers (there is no Catholic prohibition on deporting illegal immigrants, according to the Weekly Standard).

Political bickering aside, Pope Francis did not visit the border to talk politics; his focus, rather, was on the suffering of thousands who make the perilous journey north in search of a better life.

“Each step, a journey laden with injustices; the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted; so many of these brothers and sisters of ours are the consequence of trafficking in human beings,” Francis said in his address.

Central Americans have been leaving their poor and gang-controlled cities in droves, crossing through Mexico on their way to the United States. The trek across Mexico is treacherous, from the threat of gangs, human smugglers and corrupt officials who demand bribes to let them travel. Many migrants have died along the way in the desperate effort to reach the next closest city through the U.S.-Mexico desert.

Francis saluted the migrant rights groups, priests and others who risk their own lives, according to the New York Times, to help migrants along their journey.

“By their very lives, they are prophets of mercy; they are the beating heart and the accompanying feet of the church that opens its arms and sustains,” he said.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com