Pope Francis, an Argentinian and lifelong advocate for the downtrodden, visited the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday, tracing the path of the millions who have emigrated to the U.S. and greeting throngs of faithful on either side of the international line from Ciudad Juarez. He had spent the previous five days of his visit passionately speaking out against economic inequality, as Mexico is characterized by one of the most stratified income gaps in the region, and conversing directly to factory workers and prisoners in Juarez in his native Spanish. He also spent time denouncing endemic corruption and the ills of drug trafficking, but on his final day he focused in on international migration, whose causes and solutions, as he made the case, are not limited to the Mexican state. Laying flowers and pausing in prayer beneath a cross at the border, the Pope honored the 6,000 who have lost their lives while attempting to make it to the American side since 2000. He painted this with a broad rhetorical brush, not focusing on the dynamics of inter-Americas migration so much as the ‘suffering faces of countless men and women’ across the globe.
Once aboard the papal plane, the Pope responded specifically to questions about Donald Trump’s proposal for a U.S.-Mexico wall, concluding that ‘a person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.’ Trump’s team wasted no time responding with a press release decrying the Pope’s attack on the former Apprentice star’s personal faith as ‘disgraceful’, even going so far as to accuse the Mexican government of using the Pope as a strategic ‘pawn’ in their efforts to ‘rip off the United States both on trade and at the border’. This exchange received immediate international press, but it is important to bear in mind that Trump is not alone in his calls for a modern day Hadrian’s wall. John Kasich, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio have also supported the proposal. Trump has arguably made the case for this in the most inflammatory way possible, and has gone so far as to call Mexican nationals ‘rapists’ who import ‘drugs,’ ‘crime,’ and ‘lots of problems’ into the US.
Trump is currently maintaining his lead in the US presidential primary race to be the Republican party nominee–a party that will depend on its Christian base for an electoral edge. Catholicism is the largest single religious denomination in the United States with 81.6 million followers comprising 25 per cent of the population. The Latino population is the fastest growing segment of the US population, contributing to the overall increase in Catholic citizens. Catholic voters helped to elect and then re-elect President Barack Obama whose vice president, Joe Biden, is a follower of the faith. In the now-narrowing 2016 race, the only remaining contenders who can boast of confirmation names are competing for the Republican bid: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Pope Francis’s repeated calls for compassion for those in need, despite their nationality and citizenship status, will not be the first challenge for Catholic candidates who need to side with the religious leader or pander to the far-right. As to the Pope’s support of re-established diplomatic ties between the US and Cuba, the Catholic Governor Chris Christie, who has since dropped out of the race due to poor performance, did not mince words: ‘I just think the Pope is wrong. The fact is that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.’ Along with climate change and poverty alleviation, immigration is an issue on which Catholic Church and the Republican Party share little, unlike abortion and gay marriage where the two are in lockstep.
In this case, then, Trump is not an outlier when it comes to Republican-Vatican relations. On his American adventure in September, Francis became the first Pope to deliver a Congressional address and did not let the occasion pass without controversy. He introduced himself simply as the ‘son of immigrants’, focusing on inter-Americas immigration in his speech while thousands of pro-immigration reform protestors gathered outside the US Capitol. He greeted the throngs in Spanish from the Speaker’s balcony afterwards, a gesture of solidarity that did not go unnoticed by his detractors. US Representative Paul Gosar (R, AZ-04) defended the criticism that characterized from his side of the aisle, saying, ‘When the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.’
Now that the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary has passed, the posturing to win Evangelical support is less of a priority for the Republican nominee-hopefuls. The states whose primaries occur on Super Tuesday and in the months to follow have populations more representative of diverse America than lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire, so the race to court the coveted Spanish-speaking demographic will begin in earnest. Pope Francis is, to state the obvious, popular amongst American Catholics, a figure only on the rise: 50 per cent had a more positive view of the Catholic Church following his autumn visit.
Despite the media attention on the later papal comments seemingly directed at Trump, the earlier remarks at mass had been aimed at the international ‘human tragedy’ that causes so many to risk their lives to reach a better future. The Pope identified the push factors of economic migration, but also the violent conditions in Mexico and other countries caused by drug trafficking and organized crime that create the need for refugees to seek asylum. As he has before, he made special mention of traffickers who extort and enslave the vulnerable.
These recent remarks are by no means the first time Pope Francis has expressed solidarity with displaced peoples. The Pope has repeatedly and publicly expressed his sympathy for immigrants, regardless of their origin and whether they are travelling to the US or Europe.
Famously, in his first excursion from Vatican City after becoming Pope, he visited the island of Lampedusa off the coast of Italy to draw attention to the plight of those who face great risk crossing the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. Francis did not waste time with general laments about the suffering of man on Earth–he begged ‘forgiveness for those who by their decisions at the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies’. When he visited in 2013, the island and its residents had not yet experienced the full human effect of the refugee crisis that was to come. Just months after his visit, disaster struck when a boat carrying 500 people mostly from East Africa sank just off the coast of Lampedusa. The route from North Africa to the small island officially became the deadliest migration route early in 2015 when 1,600 people were reported dead by April of that year.
The day after the Paris attacks, after a Syrian passport found at the scene caused many in Europe to debate additional border security measures, the Pontiff gave a speech marking the 35th anniversary of the Jesuit Refugee Service. He reminded those quick to blame refugees to ‘think of the Holy Family, Our Lady, Saint Joseph, and the Child Jesus, who fled to Egypt to escape violence and to find refuge among strangers.’ Urging European audiences to remember that even those seeking asylum are children of God entitled to the same “inalienable dignity” as any other person, he justified compassion in terms of Catholicism as well as cosmopolitanism.
During the summer 2014 border crisis during which Central American women and children fled to the US in unprecedented numbers, Pope Francis’s statement went further than merely offering his sympathy. Sounding like a Washington policy wonk as much as the leader of a major world religion, he called for: ‘as a first urgent measure, [for] these children [to] be welcomed and protected. These measures, however, will not be sufficient, unless they are accompanied by policies that inform people about the dangers of such a journey and, above all, that promote development in their countries of origin.’
Early last year, when asked about his tentative plans to visit Mexico, Pope Francis suggested that he might walk across the US-Mexico border as a gesture of support for immigrants. Though he did not physically cross the border, the symbolism value of his visit cannot be overstated. A man of deed as much as word, it seems, the Vatican has reportedly taken charge of two refugee families as an act of charity coinciding with the Catholic observation of the Jubilee Year of Mercy which began in December.
Though many criticisms can be fairly levied at the institution of the Catholic Church and other papal activities, the concerted effort to ensure that the Pope’s Mexican visit to be interpreted as an international call for more to be done to help refugees cannot be faulted for its timeliness or intention. The worldwide displacement of peoples is at all-time high since surpassing World War II-level figures last year. Though the media is already pronouncing the Pope the ‘loser’ of the tangle with Trump, he intended to shed light on the issues surrounding immigration and he has done just that. However his intended message will land, it is surely not unnecessary or irrelevant.