By Nahal Toosi
February 17, 2016
Without ever naming him, Pope Francis rebuked Donald Trump and other GOP immigration hardliners during a visit Wednesday to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The 79-year-old Roman Catholic leader, joined by a crowd of thousands, led Mass at a field in Ciudad Juarez, just a few hundred feet away from the United States. The popular pontiff also laid flowers at a nearby memorial honoring migrants, many of whom have died as they tried to cross the border.
Francis (or Francisco, as the crowds call him in Spanish) made the stop in the gritty border city at the end of a six-day visit to Mexico. The visit to Juarez, which was streamed live to crowds gathered in a sports stadium just across the border in El Paso, Texas, also came as immigration policy continues to spur spirited debate in the GOP presidential primary race.
"We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today," Francis said. "This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families. They are the brothers and sisters of those expelled by poverty and violence, by drug trafficking and criminal organizations. Being faced with so many legal vacuums, they get caught up in a web that ensnares and always destroys the poorest."
Francis went on to urge listeners to ask God "to give us open hearts" to respond to the suffering of migrants. "No more death! No more exploitation! There is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance, time to implore the mercy of God," he said.
Trump — who once described Mexican migrants as "rapists" and insisted that he will get Mexico to pay for a "beautiful" wall along the border — has criticized the pope for his border visit, calling him a "very political person."
"I think that he doesn’t understand the problems our country has. I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico," the real estate mogul said on Thursday. Trump also alleged that Mexico pushed the pope to visit "because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is because they’re making a fortune, and we’re losing.”
Trump made his own trip to the U.S.-Mexico border in July, causing a great spectacle as he doubled down on his warnings about the misdeeds of undocumented immigrants.
The Vatican reportedly has called Trump's comments "very strange" and pointed out that the welfare of migrants has long been a passion for Francis. The Argentine-born pontiff is the first pope from Latin America and he has unflinchingly confronted a range of hot-button issues, including same-sex marriage and climate change. In Europe, which is struggling to cope with a huge wave of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubled countries, the pope has called on Catholic parishes to take in refugee families.
During a visit to the United States last September, the pope repeatedly discussed immigration, including in a historic speech to Congress. Francis urged lawmakers to show kindness to migrants and asylum seekers, reminding them that they themselves were descended from immigrants who helped build America.
His admonitions had limited effect.
After November's terrorist attacks in Paris, Republicans, along with many Democrats, tried, but ultimately failed, to severely restrict Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the United States. GOP presidential candidates, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, both of whom are Cuban-Americans, are fighting over who is more hard-line on immigration policy.
President Barack Obama has deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, angering the U.S. Latino community, all while trying to persuade the GOP-led Congress to come to terms on a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system. The president's efforts to offer millions of undocumented immigrants work permits and a reprieve from deportation, meanwhile, have been blocked by the courts after lawsuits were filed by Republicans.
The pope did not offer specific immigration policy proposals for the United States, or even directly delve into the politics. But his border appearance Wednesday could nonetheless resonate on the campaign trail, or at least among the growing population of American voters who are of Hispanic descent.
"He’s one of the leading moral authorities in the world," said Kevin Appleby, a former director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "He’s got bigger things to do than worry about what Donald Trump is saying."
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