EL PASO — With a jovial “soy Marcos” — “I’m Mark” in Spanish — Bishop Mark Seitz introduced himself to migrants who were eating soup at a shelter in the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, less than two miles from the US-Mexico border.
The migration crisis gripping the border regions is literally in the backyard of the new chairman of the migration committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose ministry began a century ago. Seitz would become the first frontier bishop to fill 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 almost every day.” He previously served as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Dallas.
“Immigrants have had the experience of leaving behind everything that made them feel at home and safe in this life, and relying completely on God during their journey,” 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.”
The simple shelter housed 65 migrants, mostly Nicaraguans, that day after being released by US immigration authorities. Volunteers helped families negotiate with sponsors across the United States, from new clothes to plane tickets to shampoo bags small enough to smuggle through airport security.
El Paso’s role in the migration crisis will be highlighted Sunday when Joe Biden becomes the destination on his first trip to the southern border as president.
On both sides of the border, religious organizations have historically performed much of the work of caring for migrants. Their efforts are especially visible when unprecedented numbers of newcomers overwhelm local and federal governments 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 Francis, who in December named the Virgin of Guadalupe, so beloved by Hispanic believers, “among the freedom-seeking caravans heading north.”
The Vatican, Catholic non-profit organizations and episcopal conferences around the world are working together to advocate for “just and humane policies” at all political levels, said Bill Canney, head of the USCCB Department of Immigration and Refugee Services.
Frontier bishops like Seitz are “critical” to this mission because they provide a “real-time perspective,” Canni added.
The political advocacy of American bishops stems from their mission to care for the most vulnerable, said Stephen Millis, professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. However, Millis said the USCCB tends to be most visible in its fight against abortion and other “culture wars,” getting entangled in partisan divisions that could otherwise undermine its defenses.
For Seitz, who was elected chairman of the migration committee for a year before his three-year term began in November, a stronger and more detailed Catholic response to migration “could revitalize the church.”
“I think most people would be surprised, and I hope pleasantly surprised, to see the degree of unanimity among bishops on this issue of immigration,” Seitz said. “Many bishops have come up to me and expressed… concerns about how best we can accommodate (migrants).”
A Milwaukee native who has served as Bishop of El Paso for the past decade as three US administrations struggled to cope with the influx of families from Central America and beyond, Seitz knows the problems firsthand.
When he spoke to the AP, he was notified that the Supreme Court had suspended pandemic-era restrictions on asylum seekers.
Seitz has been working with churches and civil authorities “on a scenario where more people could meet than we’ve ever seen” if the restrictions were lifted as expected on December 21, but the delay brought no relief.
“These are by definition not people who can apply and wait five years before they can cross the border,” Seitz said. “And we don’t even ask those questions right now with Section 42. We don’t ask why you came? We just say turn around and go back somewhere. And we send them to the most unstable and dangerous places in the world.”
Places like Ciudad Juarez, a major metropolitan area just across the El Paso border, where thousands of migrants were forced to wait for their U.S. asylum assignment during the Trump administration, and more recently, even more people are waiting to receive Section 42 among the organized criminal gangs that regularly hunt them.
Seitz set up a relief fund that donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to shelters, mostly for food and medicine. This fall, he helped open a medical clinic at the largest migrant shelter in Juarez, said Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Frontier Institute, which runs the clinic.
“It’s really difficult because models and policies are constantly changing,” Corbett said. “We have an acute situation on the border.”
Even with Section 42 in place, US officials have detained and released more than 50,000 asylum seekers in El Paso since early October, said the Rev. Michael Gallagher, a Jesuit priest and attorney.
“Bishop Seitz encouraged parishes to use vacant spaces” such as halls as temporary shelters, Gallagher added. His downtown church, Sacred Heart, hosts about 200 migrants at the gym every night.
“Like people called by Jesus and the gospel to the ministry…it sounds like it’s right in our direction,” Seitz explained.
His ministry goes beyond the asylum. For more than a year now, he has been celebrating mass at a federal unaccompanied migrant home and wearing friendship bracelets woven by some of them on his right wrist.
He just added a new one from a trip to Guatemala in mid-December to find out from local organizations what is pushing so many people on their perilous journey north.
This is an area where Seitz believes the Bishops’ Conference can make an impact by providing recommendations on how the United States can promote stability and job creation in countries of origin.
Another priority for Seitz is the church’s role in building a better understanding between Americans far beyond the borders 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 streamlined process so that people can cross the border.”
His advice starts small – he encourages believers to attend Hispanic masses, which are becoming more common across the country, and meet with migrant parishioners.
“With this simple action, you will do much more than you could ever imagine to help us welcome and integrate people who join our communities,” Seitz said.