By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff reporter | Published April 16, 2014
ATLANTA—Bishop Luis R. Zarama, auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, joined seven other U.S. bishops and Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley in Nogales, Ariz., April 1 to celebrate a border Mass for those who have died attempting to enter the United States.
Bishop Zarama, a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, other committee members, and bishops with dioceses on the border, spent March 30-31 on both the U.S. and Mexican sides of Nogales to highlight the human suffering associated with a broken immigration system.
At one point the bishops walked through the desert in an area used by migrants, littered with backpacks and discarded water bottles. They also spoke with the U.S. Border Patrol and served people at a soup kitchen in Mexico run by the Jesuits for people who have been deported or are considering trying to cross.
A culture of indifference, said Bishop Zarama, is keeping Americans from working to find ways to fix the immigration system.
“We human beings complicate everything,” said Bishop Zarama. “When God is not in our public life, in our daily life, we forget to see him in our neighbor.”
Bishop Zarama said the desert walk through barbed wire and thorny plants was exhausting. Those trying to sneak into the country often pay smugglers known as “coyotes” to bring them, but are then abandoned and alone in the dark.
The bishop said that it’s amazing how many mothers with children are trying to cross the border.
The Border Patrol estimates nearly 6,000 migrants have died in the U.S. desert since 1998.
After meeting and talking with the Border Patrol, the bishops learned another tragedy is that a cartel controls the border on the Mexican side.
“It’s completely in the wrong hands,” Bishop Zarama said.
In his homily, spoken primarily in Spanish, Cardinal O’Malley reminded those attending that America is a nation of immigrants and spoke of the trials of Irish immigrants who came here for food and work.
The potato famine first drove the Irish here, and Bishop Zarama reflected on the cardinal’s homily by speaking of the difficult ocean journeys the Irish made to immigrate.
“It’s a history we don’t remember,” he said. “It’s the same situation.”
A Mexican or native of Central America can earn $8 or more an hour in the U.S. for a job that would pay $8 a week in their countries.
“They are human beings. It’s a need,” said Bishop Zarama.
‘Discover who our neighbor is’
Cardinal O’Malley said the purpose of celebrating Mass along the fence separating the two countries was to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor in each of the suffering who risk their lives and sometimes lose their lives in the desert.
“Pope Francis encourages us to go to the periphery to seek our neighbor in places of pain and darkness. We are here to discover our own identity as God’s children so that we can discover who our neighbor is, who is our brother and sister,” said the cardinal in his homily. “As a nation of immigrants we should feel a sense of identification with other immigrant groups seeking to enter our country.”
At an aid center for deported migrants in Mexico, Bishop Zarama talked with one young man, possibly 18 or 19 years old, who has already tried to cross the border four times. On his most recent attempt, the border patrol told him he would be placed “in the system” on the next try.
“Some of them have been (in the detention center), trying to cross the border. Some of them … they’ll keep trying,” said Bishop Zarama.
The bishop shared thoughts from the Mission for Migrants trip and the border Mass within hours of returning home to Atlanta.
At the border Mass, more than 300 people formed the outdoor congregation on the U.S. side and hundreds more participated on the Mexico side, receiving Communion pressed into hands that stretched between the slats of the border fence.
The Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., and the Archdiocese of Hermosillo, Mexico, worked closely together in arranging the details. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson and Archbishop Ulises Macias Salcedo of Hermosillo were among the concelebrants. A complex negotiation with the Border Patrol allowed the Mass to take place.
Bishop Zarama said the most “heartbreaking” aspect was seeing those gathered along the Mexican side of the fence, many separated from family members.
“The sad part was giving Communion through the fence,” he said.
“We don’t realize the human tragedy,” emphasized Bishop Zarama. “They are looking to be together. Why divide the family?”
Pope Francis decried global ‘indifference’
Prior to the Mass, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, spoke about the event’s purpose.
“Hopefully by highlighting the harsh impact the system has on our fellow human beings, our elected officials will be moved to reform it,” Bishop Elizondo said.
The USCCB proposes key elements for any legislation to bring about comprehensive immigration reform, including an eventual path for citizenship for those who meet certain requirements. It also proposes developing a “future flow worker program,” to provide visas for unskilled workers to enter the country and work in industries on a temporary basis. These workers could also become permanent residents over time.
Reform of the family reunification system is also part of the USCCB’s recommendations. The conference suggests that spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents be placed in the same category as the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and that backlogs in family categories be eliminated. Another necessary element of reform is restoration of due process protections in immigration proceedings and changes to mandatory detention laws.
Illegal and legal migrants are sacrificing much just to be able to work, Bishop Zarama said.
“And for that reason, we need to find a way,” said the bishop.
Not reforming the immigration system is a waste of lives and talents, added Bishop Zarama.
The bishops’ Mission for Migrants follows the example of Pope Francis, who, in his first trip outside of Rome, traveled to the Italian island of Lampedusa to remember African migrants who died attempting to reach Europe. Pope Francis spoke about the “globalization of indifference” toward migrants and decried the “throwaway culture” that disposes of human beings in the pursuit of wealth.
Bishop Zarama was in Rome April 6-11 to participate in an international conference, “Combating Human Trafficking: Church and Law Enforcement in Partnership.” He was unsure if he would have the chance to discuss American immigration while on the trip.
“It’s a related issue,” he said of the connection between trafficking and immigration.
“All of us … we’re immigrants,” said Bishop Zarama, a native of Colombia and a U.S. citizen.
Even the Holy Family faced migration as Joseph fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. “He was looking to save Jesus,” reminded Bishop Zarama.
Cardinal O’Malley, in his homily, urged all to be vigilant in keeping the lamp of the Statue of Liberty burning brightly.
“We need to pray for all of these people who have this dream,” said Bishop Zarama.
“This dream is having a better life.”