Bishop Mark J. Seitz walks with a young Honduran migrant at the Lerdo International Bridge in El Paso, June 2019 (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters).

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.

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 to do it with compassion and dignity.

JG: While you were with President Biden at the airport in El Paso, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott handed the president a letter that accused the president of failing to enforce federal immigration laws and said he is promoting “open border policies.” Meanwhile, the governor (who is Catholic) has been sending migrants from Texas to cities led by Democratic mayors. What do you make of the governor’s approach, and have you had a chance to speak with him about the Church’s position on these issues?

Bishop Seitz: I had a chance to greet Gov. Abbott when he came to El Paso. The bishops of Texas have been able to have a dialogue with him about the Gospel for years. I think the governor knows where we stand. I want to believe he’s trying to find his way to the light, too. In my experience, the challenges of immigration and its causes and effects are so tangled that you can only begin to get to solutions when the federal government, the states, and local communities are rowing in the same direction. We all know this is a broken system but local communities, our faith communities, and our Catholic agencies are largely picking up the pieces at the border. So whenever you put politics before collaboration, you aren’t helping the cause. As we say in Texas, that dog won’t hunt.

JG: Politicians in Washington are thousands of miles away from the lived reality you see on the border every day. When you talk to migrant families, what are you hearing from them, and what should political leaders know about their lives?

Bishop Seitz: People seem to think that those who are coming to our border are looking for a better life. That’s true. But what I’ve also found is that a lot of people aren’t just seeking a better life, but to be able to live at all. Especially women. There are too many women who come with physical, psychic, and spiritual wounds; it’s a sad reflection on our lack of respect for women. They’re fleeing desperate situations and looking for a shot to live with a little dignity. They just want to support their families, work, and be part of our communities. Through our Border Refugee Assistance Fund, we’ve been able to help women who’ve been through so much trauma. I can’t tell you how humbling it is to witness their strength in adversity. It’s a sin that Washington can’t secure the protections of vulnerable people at the border, that we can’t pass immigration reform, and, more broadly, that we continue to treat certain groups of people as disposable.

El Paso is a great example of how we have nothing to fear from migrants. If you only listened to politicians in Washington, you wouldn’t know this, but one-quarter of our community was born abroad. We are more than 80 percent Mexican American. People here have been coming and going since before this country existed. And we’re a beautiful, vibrant, and safe community for it. I feel like I’m the bishop of the best diocese in the country. Our parishes are filled with life and song and joy. We’re better off for our diversity. It’s certainly not without challenges, but the work of welcome is really transformative.

JG: You wear friendship bracelets on your wrists that were braided by girls housed at a shelter for unaccompanied minors who cross the U.S.–Mexican border. Can you share the story behind those bracelets?

Bishop Seitz: I found my way into the Church’s social mission through the pro-life movement. For decades I wore a bracelet with the date of the Roe v. Wade decision, which I vowed to wear until it was rolled back. There’s that Irish prayer, the Breastplate of Saint Patrick. It’s about binding yourself to the Trinity. When you work with the poor, all these abstractions we hold about immigrants and poor people come crashing down. You see that these are just human beings, like you and me, with hopes, anxieties, dreams, and stories. They enter into your life and provide a grace that changes you. You become part of their story and they become part of yours. The Spirit weaves your lives together. As you grow older, the spiritual life becomes more and more about finding Jesus in the vulnerability of the people you meet and in your own vulnerability. That’s where grace leaks through the crevices. It’s what gives your life meaning and purpose. To steal an expression from the Church Father Maximus, it’s in these moments that the “logos becomes thick.” These bracelets are my vow to be faithful to the God I’ve met in those vulnerable spaces and to bind myself to those stories and to the Trinity.

It’s a sin that Washington can’t secure the protections of vulnerable people at the border, that we can’t pass immigration reform, and, more broadly, that we continue to treat certain groups of people as disposable.

JG: What are the Diocese of El Paso and other Catholic agencies in the area doing to help migrant families?

Bishop Seitz: We’re being transformed by the Gospel. We’re privileged to live the Paschal Mystery in this work in many ways: hospitality, legal services, standing with those who are expelled to Mexico, and standing with them for a more just and merciful and welcoming world. And it’s not just Catholics. God has been pulling the whole community together in this—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, the young and the old. In spite of the challenges, it’s a hopeful ministry. People who migrate are people of tremendous hope; you don’t migrate if you don’t have hope that things are going to get better. And when you do this work, that hope—and faith—becomes infectious; it overtakes you and makes you a better person.

JG: Comprehensive immigration reform that would offer pathways to citizenship for migrants used to have some bipartisan support in Congress. That has not been the case for a while now. What happened and what will it take to revive that kind of legislation?

Bishop Seitz: Fundamentally, we need to stop running scared. There are smart, committed people in Washington, but on the whole, when it comes down to it, half our lawmakers are running scared from migration and the other half are peddling unfounded fears about immigrants. So there’s a lot of fear. On a spiritual level, fear is poison. It makes you want to possess and master and be defensive. That’s what you hear in rhetoric about sealing the border or in language that demonizes refugees. But fear blinds us to the reality that we might be transformed and freed for another sort of future—reconciliation, the Reign of God, a community that makes space for everyone. The Church has to work for immigration reform, but we can’t ignore how dysfunctional and fear driven our politics is right now. Some of that’s cable TV and some of it is gerrymandering and other legal factors. But it’s deeper than that. Never mind welcoming the stranger, we’ve become strangers to one another. That’s an infirmity of the soul.

We have to figure out ways to open up paths of repentance and hope to get past this fear. And what I’ve taken away from this exercise on synodality is that it can’t just be the bishops, it has to be all of us. We all have to figure this out. We have to listen deeply to the Holy Spirit. The Resurrection gets rid of fear. More than proclaiming ideas, the Church nurtures, she gathers, she builds up the Reign of God by building a community of wide hospitality, showing that there really is grace and room for everyone. Once you’ve tasted that salvation, once you know that your life and the lives of everyone else are bound up with one another, then you live differently. You can’t live the same way knowing that people are dying at the border. You can’t live the same way knowing that kids are afraid their parents might be deported. You reject the diabolic, dehumanizing, and divisive forces at work in our society and you choose life. All of that gives you the strength to keep carrying on, to share the stories with neighbors and friends, to march, to keep vigil, to vote, and to knock on the doors of elected officials. And it brings more people into the circle.

During the pandemic, Dreamers and essential workers without documents kept us healthy and fed and kept the economy going, and some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice. Don’t we owe them something in return?

On a more practical note, reform is long overdue. And it’s an unpaid debt. Let’s not forget, in many ways, immigrants are already at the center of our society. During the pandemic, Dreamers and essential workers without documents kept us healthy and fed and kept the economy going, often at great risk to their own health, and some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives. Don’t we owe them something in return? Our politicians need to catch up.

JG: Last November, your fellow bishops elected you to become chairman of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee. What are your goals for that role?

Bishop Seitz: Above all, I want to be a servant to my brother bishops in the conference, to read the signs of the times with them, interpret the magisterium of Pope Francis on this issue in our American context, and do my part to help revitalize our witness to the social gospel. I also want to find creative ways to make sure migrants and refugees feel that the Church is with them. Wherever they’re from, whatever their documentation status, whatever their faith commitment might be, they should feel that the Church is on their side and rooting for them. They need to feel God’s mercy in everyday life. We’ve got to be ministers of joy. I want to understand from immigrant leaders how our Church can better stand with them in their work for reform so our advocacy can be grounded. There are so many inspiring immigrant leaders who are showing us the way. Many of them were formed in our parishes and Church halls.

We’ve also got to work to reduce inequality and injustice abroad so people don’t have to migrate. I ministered for a while in Honduras and I learned how important it is to be in touch with the pain in those countries. This is where the Church can play an important role. As a global Church, we can build bridges with faith communities in sending countries to learn from them and better understand how we can stand alongside them in their struggles.

JG: In 2020, you knelt down with a Black Lives Matter sign for eight minutes and forty-six seconds in a prayerful protest to draw attention to the police killing of George Floyd. That image drew international attention and Pope Francis praised you in an interview. Why did you take that stand and what do you think Catholics can do to support anti-racist movements?

Bishop Seitz: First of all, racism is real. We have to recognize it. If you don’t acknowledge sin, how can you repent? We used to kneel at the beginning of every Mass and beat our breast because we’re sinners. And second, those who suffer racism need to know we’re with them. We believe in a crucified God, after all. George Floyd died because someone we gave a badge and a gun knelt on his neck. And we all know he’s not alone. That’s scandalous. When Jesus was killed, the cross was a sign of shame at first. It smelled of torture and death. But it became a source of life and communion. As Paul said, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It was haunting to see how a people that were tired of injustice and death transformed a wretched image of asphyxiation into a rallying cry for justice and solidarity. On a human level, how could you not be moved by that? But on a spiritual level, how could you not hear the strains of the Gospel in their cries?

There were those who thought it was indecent or somehow threatening to the Christian message because not everyone involved in the anti-racism protests held all of our beliefs, but I don’t agree. The Scriptures say “rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” We need to recognize that when people have a deep thirst for justice and recognition of human dignity, even when some might think differently from us, it isn’t without a holy foundation. And we might have something to learn.

JG: For people who don’t live on the border and are not actively involved in advocacy for immigrants, what are some ways to take action in their own states, neighborhoods, or parishes? 

Bishop Seitz: Get to know the poor where you are. Go to Mass in a different language. Get involved in ministry with detained migrants and prisoners. Accompany someone to check in with ICE or to immigration court. Ask yourself who picks your food and pray for them before eating. Never refer to people as “illegals” again. Recognize the different cultural communities in your parish and give them the space to lift up their feast days. Eat together. Pray over the scriptures together. Make space for people from different countries to be leaders in your parish. Work with your parish to sponsor a refugee family. Support your local immigrants rights organizations. Thank a priest when he preaches on immigration. Vote. Allow God to push you out of your comfort zone. He will open up pathways for you to serve, to build community, to encounter Jesus and be transformed.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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Published in the February 2023 issue: View Contents
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