CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — With hundreds of thousands of people watching, Pope Francis plans to ascend a ramp overlooking the Rio Grande on Wednesday and pray for migrants who have lost their lives crossing this border.
He’ll see the highways and railroads leading toward the brown hills of El Paso, and his fans — including some migrants who lived through the crossing — looking back at him from the United States.
With that stirring finale to his six-day trip to Mexico, Pope Francis also will be plunging into one of the most controversial issues in the presidential race up north: how the United States regards immigrants.
Mexican priests say the Juarez finale is intended as an extension of the pope’s message of unity and empathy that he has delivered during his stops in Mexico and in other countries. But his remarks will also be attuned to the divisive politics taking place north of the border.
In the Republican primary race, Donald Trump and other candidates have vowed to increase border security and sharply limit the entry of Syrian refugees. Trump has threatened to ban most Muslims from visiting the United States, revoke birthright citizenship for children of unauthorized migrants, and build a multibillion-dollar wall to seal off the stream of Mexicans and Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty.
The pope’s visit here is expected to be a not-so-subtle repudiation of all that.
“The pope wanted to come to Juarez to make public the suffering of the migrants,” the Rev. Roberto Luna, a priest in Ciudad Juarez, said. “The pope says that this world is a house for everyone. He’s convinced that we should treat migrants as brothers.”
Even before he arrived, Francis was blasted by Trump, who called the pontiff “a very political person.” Speaking in a Fox Business Network interview, Trump added he didn’t think the pope “understands the danger of the open border we have with Mexico.”
“And I think Mexico got him to do it because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is, because they’re making a fortune and we’re losing,” Trump added.
From the time he stepped onto the red carpet at the Mexico City airport, Pope Francis has offered pointed critiques of the failings in Mexico’s government and society, pressing his papal finger on the country’s most sensitive wounds. In front of President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose popularity has plummeted amid conflict-of-interest scandals and atrocities linked to security forces, the pope chastised the country’s leaders for a culture of corruption. Before the nation’s Catholic bishops, the pope warned against social climbing and putting faith in the “chariots and horses of today’s pharaohs.” He spoke of the dangers of wealth and greed in a vast slum outside of the capital.
But many church observers say that Pope Francis, the Argentine-born son of an Italian father, finds special importance in the immigration issue, particularly at a time when large numbers of refugees are traversing the Middle East and Europe.
“The influence that the pope can have is to remind us that we are all migrants,” said the Rev. Nicolas Villanueva Arellano, a priest in the Tijuana archdiocese whose father was a resident in California. “More than building walls, we should be trying to build bridges.”
“He’s calling us to be compassionate to people who have to move from one place to another,” Villanueva added. “They’re not doing it because they want to. Necessity obliges them.”
“For the pope, it is very important to send this message and call attention to the thousands of people [leaving home], and not just in Mexico, because it’s a situation happening across the world,” Maria Soledad Loaeza Tovar, a professor at the College of Mexico and an expert in foreign relations. “He emphasizes the theme of the marginalized, of the excluded, of those who feel isolated, who feel they’re not part of society.”
Juarez itself was marginalized not too many years ago. And now it is a city ripe for redemption. The number of killings in Juarez last year fell to about 300, one-tenth of the murder rate at the peak of the drug war in 2010, according to the state government. This could be the result of civic unity and police work; or because of the Sinaloa Cartel’s defeat of its rivals for control of the drug trafficking routes in this portion of border.
Either way, Juarez is relieved and ready for better days.
A visit to Juarez is “the most visible signal” of the pope’s opinion on cross-border migration, Luna said.
“This pope, he creates community, hope. He brings happiness to people,” he said. “That will be his legacy in history.”
Martinez reported from Mexico City.