EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The bishops of the region’s four Catholic dioceses are preparing to honor migrants who’ve died on the way to their destination with a Mass on Nov. 2 at the Rio Grande.
The 21st annual Border Mass will take place at 9 a.m. in the vicinity of an old railroad structure known as the Black Bridge near the Paso del Norte port of entry in South El Paso.
“The fundamental purpose of the Mass is to express our solidarity with migrants and refugees, particularly those who lost their life in deserts and remote areas,” said Marco Raposo, director of the Peace and Justice Ministry at the Catholic Diocese of El Paso.
According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, 335 migrants have died so far this year at the border, on their way to the border or after crossing into the United States. Because of the nature of unauthorized migration — with people often found days or weeks after passing away and usually with no witnesses coming forward — most deaths are classified as “cause undetermined.” Others drowned or died of dehydration.
The first Border Mass was held on Day of the Dead, Nov. 2, 1998, in response to a spike in migrant deaths, as the U.S. government stepped up patrols around cities bordering Mexico. “We had Operation Gatekeeper and others that turned migrants toward desert areas where they were dying in large numbers,” Raposo said.
The Mass is a symbol of unity and communion signifying that “we are one family of God,” he said.
“We are not saying there should be no borders; a lot of people misunderstand that. … What we are saying is that our borders should be a place of humanity, a place of encounter, not a place of conflict and exclusion, not a place of death and discrimination,” Raposo said.
The Border Mass that typically draws between 500 and 800 residents from both sides of the border used to take place along a fence that separated the Anapra neighborhood of Juarez, Mexico and Sunland Park, New Mexico. The bishops decided to move the Mass after the U.S. government replaced the fence with a steel bollard wall.
The Nov. 2 Mass is to take place on the Rio Grande itself or on the concrete embankment, depending on how much water the river carries that day. The entrance on the U.S. side will be on Calleros Street.
The Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces is circulating a letter urging parishioners to attend the event. “We remember that we are all pilgrims in this world, a body of people who are traveling on this earth looking forward to the moment when we can finally rest in the glory of the Kingdom with our Creator,” the letter says. It also cites the U.S. Conference of Bishops statement on how “the new immigrants call most of us back to our ancestral heritage as descendants of immigrants.”
El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz will preside over the Mass. Juarez Bishop Jose Guadalupe Torres Campos and Las Cruces Bishop Peter Baldacchino have confirmed their attendance. Bishop Jesus Herrera Quiñonez, whose diocese includes Casas Grandes and the border town of Palomas, Mexico, was also invited.