By Rhina Guidos | Catholic News Service
BALTIMORE (CNS) — Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, has made a ministry out of what some see as a crisis.
From his diocese near the border with Mexico, he has aimed to highlight the work he sees as a path toward the Gospel: serving the poor, the stranger, who cross over into the U.S. regardless of how they entered.
So it seemed natural to his brother bishops to elect him last year, as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ migration committee, a three-year term that he’s about to start. He has served the last year as chairman-elect; his term as chairman begins when the bishops’ meeting ends.
“It is something that has become such an important way that I have experienced to live the Gospel and I believe others can find that same opportunity in applying the teaching of Jesus and live it, see the face of Christ in the poor and those who have literally nothing,” Bishop Seitz told Catholic News Service Nov. 15 at the annual fall gathering of bishops in Baltimore of his work in immigration matters.
It’s an opportunity, he said, to “live our faith.”
Even as immigration became a contentious issue in the recent midterm elections in the U.S., the USCCB hardly mentioned it during the first day of the gathering.
Border bishops have been busy at home, however, dealing with the rising numbers of people trying to enter at the U.S. southern border. Other dioceses, too, have been dealing with increasing migrant populations as politicians have been busing them toward cities inland.
In El Paso, Bishop Seitz explained, the border city he calls home had been seeing up to 1,000 people a day crossing over until the Biden administration extended a health rule to keep out Venezuelans, even those seeking asylum after facing problems in their volatile homeland.
Those numbers diminished, “but now they’re gradually coming up again,” said the bishop.
On Nov. 15, a federal judge blocked the Biden administration from using the health rule to keep asylum-seekers out, meaning more people will be allowed to enter.
And the way Bishop Seitz sees it, they should be allowed to enter.
“They’re not leaving so they can raise their income levels. They’re leaving because they’re in fear for their lives and the lives of their children. It’s that simple,” he said.
Those he has seen trying to enter the U.S. come from places such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua — all experiencing turmoil.
During his term, he said, he wants to focus on addressing the problems that make people leave their home countries but also the response to those who show up in the U.S. seeking refuge. It is something that has become more critical as problems such as climate change, political and economic instability, and violence force people out of their homelands.
As their numbers increase in the U.S., so does the vitriol against them.
“We’re not going to change the political picture here, the political horizons, if you will, of the immigration issue until we change hearts and minds in communities across our country and, unfortunately, the narrative that has taken hold has been led by many politicians who gain when fear of the immigrant is enhanced,” Bishop Seitz said.
Even political parties that once sought out solutions and sympathy for immigrants now also focus only on “how to stop the flow,” he said, “without considering the causes of that flow and why people are coming, without considering the right of asylum, which we would hope we would have if we ever had to flee.”
As a pastor, he said he tries to see how the church can best help those in need with the resources available.
“It’s really stretching our ability, of the NGOs and the church, to receive people and to give them the assistance they need so they can continue their journey especially as cold temperatures take hold, even in our area,” he said. “I’m very concerned about the families with young children being left on our streets.”
But even as the problems that need a solution mount, he said he is “excited about taking up this role.”
It offers Christians an opportunity to see people with the eyes of Christ, and to extend to them the kind of welcome Jesus would extend: “with love and peace and hope,” he said.