By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – As tensions at the U.S.-Mexico border continue to mount, El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz successfully shepherded a group of migrants who had previously been denied asylum in the United States across the border on Thursday, describing their plight as “an affront to human rights and human dignity.”
The bishop spoke to The Tablet just hours after he crossed the Laredo International Bridge into Mexico: First to accompany migrants who had been returned from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez as part of the Remain in Mexico program, then to make a return voyage with seven new individuals seeking asylum. Seitz recalled it as both one of the most “joyful” and “heart wrenching” experiences in his time as bishop.
On Wednesday – the same day in which a photo was published of a dead El Salvadoran father and two-year-old child who drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande after being denied asylum in the United States – Seitz announced that he and leaders of the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez would lead a joint effort at the border to highlight the “devastating consequences of inhumane border policies.”
On Thursday afternoon, he led a group of individuals who had been denied entry to the U.S. to Ciudad Juárez where Father Javier Calvillo, the director of Casa del Migrante, the Mexican diocese’s migrant shelter, met them.
The Remain in Mexico program, which has recently been expanded by President Donald Trump, requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while they await their hearings in the U.S, often for months at a time in what has frequently been described as inhumane and unsafe conditions. Since January, more than 12,000 asylum seekers have been forced to wait in Mexico as a result of a policy intended to help deter migrants from crossing the border.
In Mexico, the group prayed together before an audience of priests of the two dioceses, journalists, and concerned Catholics on both sides of the border, many who held signs in protest.
“A government and society which view fleeing children and families as threats; a government which treats children in U.S. custody worse than animals; a government and society who turn their backs on pregnant mothers, babies and families and make them wait in Ciudad Juarez without a thought to the crushing consequences on this challenged city . . . This government and this society are not well,” Seitz told the crowd.
“We suffer from a life-threatening case of hardening of the heart. In a day when we prefer to think that prejudice and intolerance are problems of the past, we have found a new acceptable group to treat as less than human, to look down upon and to fear. And should they speak another language or are brown or black, well, it is that much easier to stigmatize them,” he continued.
Seitz labeled the policies as that of a “heart-sick government and society” and decried the “hopelessness” of migrants who are forced to watch their children suffer.
“Would we rather they die on the banks of the Rio Grande than trouble us with their presence?” he asked.
“We Americans need our hearts checked. Our hearts have grown too cold and too hard and that bodes ill for the health of our nation,” he added.
“In the America of today, is there no more Golden Rule? Have we forgotten the lessons of Scripture? Have we forgotten the commandment to love? Have we forgotten God?” Seitz asked.
After a time of prayer, Seitz – along with a family of five, a young man from El Salvador who had been separated from another family member, and a Cuban who had recently been beaten and robbed – headed back across the bridge towards the United States.
Seitz told The Tablet that the 9-year old daughter of the family took his hand as they crossed the bridge, where these individuals – “who never should have been returned in the first place,” said Seitz – were met by border officials.
The bishop said that “tense” words were exchanged and he was skeptical as to whether their efforts would be successful, however the individuals were eventually all allowed entry into the United States.
“I’ve rarely felt such elation and thanksgiving to God,” he told The Tablet afterwards.
“My heart is so moved by this encounter and how much they suffered,” he continued. “I just want to be able to shed some light about what is happening every day under our noses at the entry to our country.”
“Every day the U.S. is sending up to 300 asylum seekers to one of the most dangerous places in Mexico with nothing and no one to help them,” he said. “This deserves our attention and all our efforts to change this ill-thought policy.”
In April, while participating in a Vatican conference on human trafficking, Seitz – who has been one of the leading defenders of migrants among the U.S. hierarchy – presented Pope Francis with prayer cards of two migrant children who had died in U.S. custody after crossing the border.
He told The Tablet that he hopes the viral photo of the Salvadoran man and his daughter would help galvanize the nation and awaken the consciences of Americans to no longer tolerate “this terrible violence.”
“These practices do not reflect who we are as a nation and we can change our practices. That’s my prayer,” he said.
Reflecting on the day, he said it was “an amazing experience that I’ll forever remember. It was just such a joy to say to them, ‘you don’t have to live in fear – for now.’”