As Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric continues to drive the GOP to the right, the nation’s Latino Catholics are hoping Pope Francis — who has made the plight of migrants a key centerpiece of his Papacy — can help change Washington’s tone.
“I trust in him — he understands the problems of Latinos,” said parishioner Mariana Garcia, 57, who emigrated from El Salvador and cleans houses for a living. “I hope he sends a message to the people with power to please help, to give these people a chance to be legal.”
Pope Francis is widely expected to address the issue of immigration during his historic speech to a joint session of Congress later this month.
Already, his US itinerary includes at least two meetings with immigrant families in Harlem and Philadelphia, and even the chair he’ll use during his Mass at Madison Square Garden has been constructed using the labor of immigrant workers.
Republican leaders — notably fellow Catholics Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum — have criticized Pope Francis for wading into politics, but the two are outliers considering the US Catholic Church has spoken out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform for years now:
Parishes throughout the United States provide social services and education to undocumented migrants, many of whom fill their pews at Sunday Mass. The influential U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has lobbied persistently for immigration reform. “It is fundamentally unjust to use the labor of these people and not afford them any protection,” said Flores, the bishop from Texas.
The nation’s Latino Catholics constitute a massive demographic bloc — there are nearly 30 million Latino Catholics in the United States. In 2012, Catholic voters split their votes almost evenly between President Obama and Mitt Romney, but Latino Catholics voted overwhelmingly for Obama, by a blowout 75% to 21% margin.
As Pope Francis has offered a humanizing view of immigrants, Latino Catholics are responding in what some Catholic leaders are calling, “the Pope Francis Effect”:
In Francis, many see a moral leader who uses his powerful pulpit to focus on human principles that he thinks should transcend politics. Earlier this year, the pope told reporters that he had even considered entering the country via border crossing: “To enter the United States from the border with Mexico would be a beautiful gesture of brotherhood and support for immigrants.”
His first trip after he became pope in 2013 was to Lampedusa, Italy, where he threw a wreath into the ocean, where many poor African migrants have drowned trying to reach Europe.
“I felt that I ought to come here today to pray, to make a gesture of closeness, but also to reawaken our consciences so that what happened would not be repeated,” he said in Lampedusa, praising those who have shown “attention to persons on their voyage toward something better.”
In fact, some 50,000 Latinos are expected to trek to Washington D.C. this month to gather outside the White House as the Pope meets with President Obama. 100 or so are expected to be part of a group of 100 women trekking 100 miles from a detention center in York County, Pennsylvania to DC.
“Set to arrive when the Pope will be speaking in Congress and meeting with the President, we will walk carrying stories from a site of human suffering to the Pope with a message of human dignity,” the women say on their website.
In particular, immigrants and their allies are hoping Pope Francis’s message reaches Republican candidates who are building their Presidential campaigns on anti-immigrant vitriol:
“I’m an immigrant myself, and I hear politicians saying they want to build higher walls. I can’t remember a time when it’s been this ugly,” said Perez, 31, an elementary school teacher who emigrated from El Salvador when she was a child and now attends Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va.
Perez said that at a time when politicians are talking about mass deportations, “anchor babies” and revoking birthright citizenship, she is eager to hear the pope’s “gentle, kind voice that makes you feel like you are going to be okay.”