Bishop Mark J. Seitz leads the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.–Mexico border. The diocese includes ten counties in far West Texas covering more than 20,000 square miles. Two weeks ago, Bishop Seitz met with President Biden during the president’s trip to El Paso. Commonweal contributor John Gehring recently spoke with the bishop about that meeting and what leaders in Washington who are thousands of miles away from the reality on the border should know about migrants.
John Gehring: When President Biden visited El Paso, you had a conversation with him in the presidential limousine. What did you tell him and how did he respond?
Bishop Seitz: El Paso is at the crossroads of migration. For us, it was important for the president to understand that we really can meet the challenges of migration in a way that’s true to our values, and can do it with compassion and dignity. It was a bit heady to be swept away by the Secret Service for a one-on-one talk with the president of the United States—who gets a chance like that? Our conversation was private. But he’s the president and I’m a bishop and when people are in confined spaces with a priest they tend to open up. So you can imagine that naturally we spoke about faith and how he himself understands this unique role he inhabits in this unique moment in history. I hope we can pick up the thread again. I also thought it was important for him to be in touch with the pain here at the border. You can’t make good policy if you don’t know the pain. I gave him a holy card of the Sacred Heart with a message from a little girl in Ciudad Juárez looking for a chance to reunite with family in the United States.
JG: President Biden has said that he doesn’t like Title 42, the controversial Trump-era policy that has led to the expulsion of migrants seeking asylum. In a recent announcement, the Biden administration said it would open more legal pathways to migrants, but at the same time expanded restrictive policies that will mean migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, and Haiti will face immediate expulsion to Mexico if they cross the border illegally. The UN Refugee Agency said the restrictions are “not in line with refugee law standards.” Is the administration creating more insecurity and fear on the border?
Bishop Seitz: If he doesn’t like Title 42, it’s because he shouldn’t. The expansion of Title 42, put in place by the previous administration on the false pretense that immigrants bring disease, is unjustifiable. It is probably illegal, and I hope the Supreme Court will see it that way. But as a priest, I need to be clear: Title 42 and policies like it are merciless and are literally killing people by driving them to cross the desert and to drown in the river. Children are dying. Death can’t be an acceptable part of the overhead of our immigration policy. Have we become that numb? There are alternatives. But from experience, I can tell you it won’t be solved with policies that deny asylum to more people, or with walls, deportation, detention, or more money for immigration enforcement. Immigration is a long-term challenge that’s only going to be solved with long-term thinking. We need to pivot to a more humanitarian approach that respects the rights and dignity of people who need to migrate. We need to promote sustainable development abroad so people don’t have to migrate. But politicians can have a hard time seeing the big picture. So as a Catholic community, we’re going to need to lead by our example, and our bishops’ conference will keep pushing the president to make the moral case to the rest of the country that all of this is possible, is achievable, and is the right thing to do.