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Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Mexico will include a powerful act of compassion he was ultimately unable to accomplish during his US tour last year — a visit to the border.
When the Pontiff visited the US, immigration advocates had hoped the Pope’s plea for compassion would resonate for anti-immigrant legislators in Congress. And while thousands of Americans flocked to hear him in DC and millions more watched from their homes, these legislators ultimately failed to heed his advice.
The Pope’s DC appearance was a huge personal victory for then-Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, who had extended invitations to three different Popes over his 20-year career. When the Pope stepped out to the Capitol balcony to greet well-wishers following his joint address to Congress, Boehner openly wept.
Throughout his address, Pope Francis, calling himself a “son of immigrants,” made a direct plea for action to members of Congress “to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation.” But, Speaker Boehner refused to move on a reform bill — just as he had refused to move the bipartisan Senate bill in the previous Congress when there were enough votes to pass it. Within days, Boehner announced he was quitting as Speaker.
His successor, Paul Ryan, has also refused to call a vote on comprehensive immigration reform, even though his former 2012 Presidential running mate, Mitt Romney, has since openly regretted the anti-immigrant positions that ultimately played a significant role in losing the White House that year.
Early in his papacy, Francis urged compassion for refugees. In 2013, he threw a wreath into sea off the Italian island of Lampedusa in memory of the thousands of African refugees who had drowned trying to reach the safety of Europe.
“Who cried for the deaths of these brothers and sisters?” he asked. “We have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It’s not our business.”
But as the Pope called for open arms, Republican members of Congress slammed the door shut on refugees. Following Trump’s lead, Republicans in Congress attempted to pass a bill that would have effectively halted the US resettlement of Syrian refugees fleeing war.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, at the time a candidate for President, said his state would not admit any Syrian families, not even “orphans under age 5.” Trump boasted that he would tell Syrian children, “You can’t come here,” and at least two dozen Republican Governors joined Christie in attempting to block Syrians from their states.
Throughout his US visit, the Pontiff met with refugees and immigrants, in Philadelphia telling the immigrant and Latino audience that they “bring many gifts to this nation,” and to “never be ashamed of your traditions.”
“Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land,” he said.
In Washington DC, Pope Francis embraced five-year-old Sofi Cruz, a US-citizen daughter of Mexican immigrants who had broken through the security barrier of the Pope’s parade to hand him a letter asking him to fight for DAPA and her undocumented immigrant parents.
Instead, Republican leaders from the 26 states blocking DAPA have continued to refuse to drop their lawsuit, leaving up to five million immigrants at risk of deportation as a Republican-led Congress fails to take up a legislative fix to our nation’s broken immigration system.
Even supposed “immigrant-friendly” Republican candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have taken a right-turn on immigration, with Rubio disowning the immigration bill he co-authored, and Bush condemning a “multicultural society.”
If anything, the immigration debate has intensified since the Pope’s visit to the United States last fall.
In the GOP nominating contest, the rhetoric has gotten increasingly ugly as the first votes have been cast. The Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in the case against executive action, brought by the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, and 25 other Republican Governors and Attorneys General. And, the Obama Administration has launched raids targeting women and children who fled violence in Central America. All of that serves as a backdrop to what will be one of the most poignant and powerful stops on the Pontiff’s tour.
Following an open Mass in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, the Pope is expected to walk to the nearby Rio Grande to pray for the thousands of immigrants who have died attempting to cross the border. Hundreds of thousands of spectators are expected to be watching from both sides of the border.
The pure visuals of the Pope praying at the border makes it “arguably the most important national tour of his dynamic papacy,” and Vatican officials also expect the Pontiff to call for humane treatment of the thousands of refugee families who have fled dangerous Central American nations for the US.
Perhaps it could be enough to help change some of the debate, and be “a salve for the hurtful anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump,” as columnist Maribel Hastings wrote in a column last year. Many still have hope his words can sway legislators still pursuing an anti-immigrant agenda, as Bishop Mark Seitz of the El Paso Catholic Diocese recently noted:
“Perhaps this papal visit will be an opportunity for [Governor Greg Abbott] and others to more carefully consider the place of compassion toward those who are fleeing to our borders and the implications of our state’s response upon their lives.”