2022 CIII Statement by Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz, Bishop of El Paso
September 14, 2022
Statement by Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz, Bishop of El Paso
Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative (CIII) Conference: Marquette University
Panel on Racism in US Immigration Policy and Practice: A Catholic Response
September 13, 2022
When I think about my pastoral letter on racism, I think it’s important for anyone in leadership to recognize that there are going to be times in life when you’re confronted by events beyond your control and which test you. The 2019 shooting was one of those moments for me. It was an act of unthinkable racial terrorism, targeting our people, their culture, their binational identity, their spirit of welcome.
As a religious leader, your job in moments like this is to open up a space to see God somewhere in the middle of all this. To comfort people. And to try to make some sense of what’s happened. In a sense, the victims of that massacre went beyond just the 23 dead, it extended to the families and the ripple effects extended to the whole community. And if it was meant to terrorize; that it did! People in El Paso told me how for the first time they felt afraid to walk outside of the door because of the target they felt on their back because they were Latino. As a pastor, you have to speak to this.
So, my letter was a love letter to my people. An attempt to begin to interpret what happened in the light of the Gospel. But once you begin untangling all the knots you realize just how thoroughly racism is baked into life at the border. It has a history. I was from Wisconsin, about 30 minutes west of here. And when I grew up I was kind of oblivious to this history. But when you’re confronted with something like August 3rd, you begin to look differently at the underside of our history, you see how extensive it is, how horrific it is. How death-dealing it is. And so, I felt it was important to put what happened into context. Because unless you name it, you can’t deal with it.
And what happened wasn’t isolated from a broader political context. We’ve all seen over the last several years just an eruption of hatred and scapegoating and hateful speech, and – and this is important – it was politically legitimated. The murders in El Paso were directly connected to that. And I felt an obligation to point that out. We were sold the lie that we need to be afraid of those who are different. Now, what I tried to show in my pastoral letter is that this racism is manufactured, in service of privilege, gain and social superiority. Racism has no real foundation. Scientifically, we know it’s all based on a lie. But it’s sold over and over again, and often by politicians. And so, this type of violence happens again and again in our history. And it shapes our laws, including immigration law and how we enforce immigration law.
Many of you are familiar with what people face when they come to the border. I’ve been in El Paso now for nine years. I’ve seen how trauma can affect families, I’ve talked to those who have been returned to Mexico and those who’ve been in the hieleras, those deliberately ice-cold rooms into which Border Patrol places recently apprehended immigrants. I’ve listened to the kids who’ve had to make it through the desert alone. I’ve been at the morgue when bodies are taken from the Rio Grande. I’ve celebrated Memorial Masses for those who didn’t make it. But remember, all this has a history.
There’s a story from all the way back in 1917 that I think teases this out. You may know the story of Rosa Parks but I wonder if you know the story of Carmelita Torres. This image is from the artist Frank Parga. Back in 1917 there was this young woman from Ciudad Juárez, a 17-year-old domestic worker who used to cross the border from Juárez to El Paso on a streetcar every day to go to work.
Now at the time there was a new mayor in El Paso, Tom Lea, an Anglo, a progressive who promised to clean up corruption, but who started tearing down the housing of the poor and the immigrants in the city center. And he also wanted to address the issue of so-called ‘dirty- Mexicans’ crossing the border – a trope we’ve heard over and over. He whipped up fears about typhus fever, which even the public health authorities thought was beyond the pale.
But local customs officials implemented a delousing campaign anyway, forcing Mexicans to undress and dousing them with gasoline. Now, the customs officials would often take photos of the women through peepholes as they undressed. And less than a year before, the same tactic had been used on 28 prisoners in the El Paso jail and it resulted in a fire killing them all.
So one day, Carmelita just said no. She wouldn’t get off the streetcar. She wouldn’t submit to the indignity. And she was soon joined by dozens and dozens of other young domestic worker women and they completely shut down the bridge. For a couple days.
Now, if you think of that story, a lot of our immigration policy today is like that, conceived in racism, driven by a politics of fear. It sounds a lot, for example, like Title 42. Another anti-immigrant policy, directed now against the most vulnerable, asylum seekers, with no basis in public health.
But it’s not just Tom Lea’s delousing campaign, it’s the Asian Exclusion Acts, the laws targeting southern Europeans, the racial quotas of 1924, Operation Wetback in 1954, the border wall and increased enforcement, the blockade strategies, Operation Streamline, Remain in Mexico, the charging of Haitian fathers at the Texas border…at the border we have seen it all. It’s the same thing over and over again. It’s racism.
These last several years have been a really rocky time of racial reckoning. Hopefully, it’s harder to close our eyes to how pervasive racism and supremacy have been and are. In the opening lines of my letter, I call racism an idol. In Christianity, an idol is something that competes with God for our devotion. It’s something other than God that we cling to for comfort and security. And we’ve clung to racism. We just can’t seem to shake it.
There’s a moment in the Book of Exodus, in the thirty-second chapter when Moses comes down from talking with God on the mountain and finds his people engaged in idol worship. The gold calf. And he can’t deal with it. Enraged, he takes the two tablets of the Covenant, the ones that God had just inscribed by his own finger, and he smashes them.
I think you could say that today we’re living through a period of smashed tablets. As a country, we’ve lost confidence that the law can and should be just, we’ve lost trust in any shared cultural and social inheritance, and in one another. And we know we’ve given over our devotion to profit, to money-making and security, at the expense of human dignity. And the trouble is I’m not sure we know exactly what to do about it. And once you transfer your devotion from God and the truth to something else, once you indulge in that kind of vanity, well, anything is possible. Anything is justifiable. Deaths of children in the desert or in the river or in a tractor trailer outside San Antonio become a trifle. This year, 2022, will be the highest year on record for border deaths, with 557 deaths already verified by the Border Patrol. How is that possible in 2022? Because once you place your political power above all else, you can overlook anything.
But in better moments I remember that for all our warts, this is a country that through the grit and agitation and sacrifice of many, overcame slavery, gave us the Civil Rights Acts; the Voting Rights Acts; the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments; and the Refugee Act of 1980, the various legalizations, imperfect though they’ve been. It does take a while but there does seem to be an arc in our history, as MLK said, that bends towards justice. Eventually Moses regains his footing, goes back up the mountain and begs God to stay his wrath.
We Catholics have a role to play in extending the arc of justice. No one’s made that clearer lately than Pope Francis. This is a pope who also clearly sees how ‘migrations, more than ever before, will play a pivotal role in the future of our world’ (FT, 40). And he sees how immigration status and how borders are some of the great axes of inequality of our time. We need to eradicate the hate that’s built up like plaque in our country. We need to get to immigration reform. We need to restore and rebuild asylum and make sure it’s respected. We need to restore our relationship with sending communities and with the earth.
Pope Francis has given us a great deal to meditate on in Fratelli tutti, his encyclical on human fraternity. At the heart of the encyclical is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
For centuries, during Mass the church used to pair the telling of the story of the Good Samaritan with references to the story of Moses in Exodus, of Moses pleading that God stay his wrath in the face of idolatry. There’s a connection there which the early church fathers saw.
Remember the parable, a priest and a Levite pass by a beaten and wounded man on the side of the road. They represent the law and they pass by. And there’s a sense, and this is what the early church fathers saw, that the law, while important, is insufficient. Especially at a time when the tablets are smashed and on the ground. Especially at a time of polarization and division, when Samaritans and Jews, and today’s version of Samaritans and Jews, want nothing to do with one another. By itself it can’t generate neighborliness. What’s needed is a conversion of heart. Compassion. Tenderness.
That’s where the Samaritan comes in. He’s the outsider who redefines what it means to be a neighbor – perhaps it’s no coincidence that he’s also a foreigner. The fathers saw in the figure of this foreigner, Jesus himself. Jesus the stranger. We don’t need Moses to beg God to stay his wrath anymore; in our brokenness it’s God who comes to the rescue of our wounded humanity, shot, beaten, degraded, returned to Mexico, deluded by the idol of racism, duped into fearing one another.
And the Samaritan brings the wounded man to an inn and promises to pay the bill so they’ll tend to him. Saint Augustine saw in this the figure of the church. For the early fathers, the inn was the church. What Francis calls a field hospital. The pope is clear – he wants the church to be a field hospital, a place of hospitality. Our job is to take care of the wounded on the way, to walk with communities torn apart by hatred. Our place is with those who are beaten and worn down from racism and every other sin. Denouncing injustice, painting a picture of what could be. Needling the proud, lifting up the injured, announcing the good news, sticking by the poor, the sick and the immigrant, offering true worship. Remember how Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that her people would worship the Father in spirit and truth. And as we read in the Book of James, true religion is this – ‘to watch over orphans and widows in their affliction’ (1,27). If the church isn’t an inn, if it’s not a Samaritan church, not a field hospital, it’s not the church.
Being the inn, being the field hospital can be deeply renewing for the spiritual life personally. I’ve tried to live this, even in the wake of August 3rd. It changes you. And it can re-center the pastoral work of the church and our work for a more just society. This type of work is medicine for the soul, it’s an off-ramp from the culture wars around us, the polarization and the bickering, and it’s the best gift we can offer a wounded body politic so that we can begin to turn from idolatry, pick up the shards of the Covenant and rebuild. Thank you.
September 13, 2022