Wall Street Journal
By Dudley Althaus
February 9, 2016
Pope Francis arrives in Mexico on Friday for a six-day visit that will end with a highly symbolic and potentially controversial act: the pontiff taking a stand on the fortified U.S. border to show solidarity with the migrants trying to cross it.
The pope’s gesture comes at the height of a rancorous U.S. political season in which immigration has become a hot-button issue.
Two leading candidates for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have vowed to build a wall along the nearly 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border. Mr. Trump has said he would forcibly deport up to 11 million illegal migrants from the U.S.
The pope will hold a cross-border Mass in Ciudad Juárez on Feb. 17 just 90 yards from the U.S. frontier. Some 200,000 people are expected to attend on the Mexican side and an additional 50,000 across the Rio Grande in Texas.
“This is one community despite the fence,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters on Tuesday. “I think it will be moving to see this single community even though it is located on two sides of the border.”
Before the Mass, the pope is expected to ride to the border line and offer a prayer for migrants, including those fleeing war in the Middle East and escaping deadly street gangs in Central America.
The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, the pope has been an outspoken advocate for migrant rights during his three years as leader of the world’s one billion Catholics.
In his September speech to the U.S. Congress, he celebrated the immigrant experience and urged lawmakers to identify with migrants’ hopes for a better life. “Is this not what we want for our own children?” he asked them.
While Mr. Trump has caused controversy with his comments that Mexicans—including “rapists”—are crossing the border in droves, the U.S. has actually seen a significant decline in people of all nationalities trying to sneak across the border over the past decade, down to about 330,000 last year from nearly 1.2 million in 2005.
Yet the papal visit to Mexico comes at a time when growing numbers of migrants from Central America, especially minors, are fleeing barbaric violence in their countries to seek refuge in the U.S.
More than half a million Central American migrants—the vast majority from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—were detained trying to cross the U.S. border during the past three years. That compares with nearly 200,000 the previous three years. An unknown number of migrants made it through.
Gang violence has placed the three countries—known collectively as the Northern Triangle—among the world’s deadliest corners. With a 72% spike in killings last year, El Salvador has overtaken neighboring Honduras as the world’s most murderous country not at war, with a per capita homicide rate 20 times that of the U.S.
“There is an urge to flee, because of the very asphyxiation that people feel,” said Verónica Reyna, a psychologist with a Catholic Church-linked group working on violence reduction in a gang-plagued suburb of San Salvador. “In El Salvador, there is a constant paranoia, a permanent fear.”
Pope Francis’ defense of migrants echoes that of his predecessors, but he has given unprecedented priority to the topic and used more forceful rhetoric.
In July 2013, on his first trip outside Rome as pope, Pope Francis traveled to the southern Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, a major entry point for undocumented migrants into Europe. There, he condemned a “globalization of indifference” he saw epitomized by the deaths of those who have drowned on the sea crossing from North Africa.
The church is on the front lines of the migrant crisis from the neighborhoods of San Salvador to the U.S. border. Across Mexico, it has long provided shelters along the migrants’ trail.
In the central Mexican state of Tlaxcala, the Sacred Family migrant refuge, run by the local parish, sits near the path of “The Beast,” the collective name for the freight trains that rumble north several times a day from Mexico’s southern border, often with migrants clinging to the roofs and sides of the cars.
The refuge provides up to 48 hours of rest and nourishment for between 10 to 30 migrants at a time on their way north. Last year, it sheltered about 3,000 people, the overwhelming majority young, single men from Honduras who hop a ride on the freight train or walk along its track, dodging criminal gangs, immigration police, and railroad security agents.
Many tell harrowing stories. Rigoberto Montoya, 41, who ran a vegetable stall in a market in Tegucigalpa, believes gang members killed his wife because she couldn’t pay rising extortion fees and he fears a similar fate. “If I go back to my country, I will get killed, and I don’t want to die like that,” he said.
The Sacred Family refuge was started by a Catholic priest in 2010 who began sheltering migrants in his house, and then got help from the local bishop. It runs on donations of food and services from local merchants and volunteers.
“The Catholic Church is trying to respond to the evangelical requirement to protect the people who are most vulnerable,” said Father Elias Davila, who runs the shelter, adding he admired Pope Francis’ outspoken stance on the issue.
“The pope comes with the authority to speak about migration,” he said.
On a recent day, Floris Reyes, 17, stood in line with about 25 men to get a lunch of rice, beans and stew. Threatened with death by an abusive husband, she left her toddler daughter in Honduras in her mother’s care and, disguised as a man, fled north with a 27-year-old uncle.
The three-week trip by truck, bus, on foot and on the train was difficult. She was robbed three times, she said. Once, she and her uncle jumped off the train after it was boarded by machete-wielding thugs who said they were members of the brutal Zetas cartel. She wonders what happened to three other Honduran girls she met on the train who didn’t get off.
“I knew that women suffer a lot more on the trip,” she said. “They are raped. They are kidnapped. I didn’t care. I had decided to risk death. I had decided to risk everything.”
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