This episode of CMSOnAir features an interview with Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso Texas. CMS’s communications coordinator Emma Winters asks Bishop Seitz about his recent pastoral letter, “Night Will Be No More.” The letter, a direct response to the August 3  Walmart massacre, condemns racism and white supremacy, examines the legacy of hate in the borderlands, and says to all: “Tú vales, you count.” Bishop Seitz also discusses the 2019 Border Mass, the El Paso Diocese fund to aid asylum seekers stuck in Ciudad Juarez, and why families should be at the heart of our immigration system.
The 2019 Father Lydio F. Tomasi, c.s. Annual Lecture on International Migration was delivered by Msgr. Arturo J. Bañuelas, Pastor of St. Mark’s Parish in El Paso, TX on March 12, 2019 at the sixth national gathering of the Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative in Santa Clara, California....
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NRSV). As these words from Sacred Scripture indicate, the Judeo-Christian tradition commands the believer to provide a sympathetic welcome to foreigners. Yet, the passage reveals that the giver of......
Emma: Welcome to CMSOnAir, the podcast on migration and refugee issues, brought to you by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. I’m Emma Winters, CMS’s communications coordinator. In this episode, you’ll hear me speak with Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas. He has been forceful and compassionate in calls to protect the dignity of migrants [and has been] speaking out against the detention and deportation. In recent months, he has worked with Hope Border Institute to build a border refugee assistance fund for asylum seekers forced to wait in Ciudad Juarez under the [Migrant Protection Protocols] “Remain in Mexico” policy. In a recent pastoral letter, “Night Will Be No More,” Bishop Seitz reflected on the August 3rd massacre in El Paso, examined the history of white supremacy in the borderlands, and offered a message of hope for a more just and merciful world. Now here’s my conversation with Bishop Seitz.
Bishop Seitz: Welcome! Nice to have you here, Emma.
Emma: This is my first time in El Paso, and I’ve already experienced several warm welcomes.
Bishop Seitz: Good! Bienvenida.
Emma: Thank you. I’m really looking forward to the border Mass this weekend, could you describe what this Mass, which is literally on the US-Mexico border line, what it’s like and why you come together for this Mass with the bishops of Ciudad Juarez and Las Cruces, and people on both sides of the border?
Bishop Seitz: Well, I might say that the annual border Mass is the ideal situation and ideal place for a Mass, because whenever we celebrate Mass, there are borders that are being crossed. It brings the people of God from our disparate lives, coming from all different places, together — united in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and sharing in His Paschal Mystery. What a wonderful thing when we gather on a literal national border. We’re going to have the altar — God willing if the waters don’t rise — right, literally, in the middle of the channel of the Rio Grande river. We’ll have people on the embankments. There are concrete embankments on either side.
On the South will be people from Ciudad Juarez and regions surrounding it, and on the North side will be people from El Paso and around. Of course on our side there will be many immigrants, and others, who are seeking a home here. We’ll probably see that on the other side too, people who are refugees who are waiting in Ciudad Juarez, and hoping, praying that one day they’ll be able to cross. When you celebrate Mass, you say, “De Facto, we are the people of God.” And that’s not the only border that’s being crossed. Whenever you celebrate Mass, you’re crossing an even more important border, and that is between Earth and Heaven because God is present there. Jesus, his son, who originally made that passage to become one of us, is joined with us. The whole Church in Heaven is gathered there. It all happens on a border, in a certain way, you know, and we will recognize that.
Of course, the thing that we’re going to be praying for especially is the repose of the soul of all of those who have died seeking to cross our national border. So many of them have died right here. I lost count. I’m sorry to say, but I stopped counting at about nine people who drowned in our immigration canals, which are alongside the border, trying to enter the United States this year. Nine drowned. And children, like Felipe and Jakelin, an eight and a nine-year-old, who died of the flu because they were in Border Patrol hands and didn’t get treatment soon enough. We’ll be praying for hundreds of people who have died all across the border between Mexico and the United States simply in this last year. It’s important that we do that, that we recognize that they’re not just numbers. But on this All Souls day, [we are going] to recognize that we have lost these most priceless treasures that God has given us, people who were simply fleeing from unlivable situations in their home countries, and who instead of finding refuge, found death on our border.
It doesn’t have to be that way. This will not be a protest action on the border. We are not bringing signs or shouting slogans. We are there to pray. But we trust that when we bring to light this reality, that it will also make people aware that, as I said, it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to treat those who are fleeing here as though they are a threat to us. We don’t have to force them into life-threatening situations in order to cross. Although these things have become accepted as a norm, as a necessity, the Church needs to say, “It should not be this way.” And by coming together, and showing that that border, while it may be an important demarcation point between one country and another, it doesn’t have to be treated the way it is. It should be a place of union.
Emma: In July, you worked with Hope Border Institute to start an emergency fund for people who are stuck in Mexico, trying to access the US asylum system. Have you witnessed the conditions for those asylum seekers who are being forced to wait in Juarez? And why did you feel called to start this fund across the border?
Bishop Seitz: Yes, I have witnessed what the situation is. I’ve been to Juarez several times in the last two months and it gives me great, great concern what they’re living there. It used to be, when there was some kind of passage allowed for those asylum seekers, that they would spend maybe a week in Juarez trying to figure out how to cross. Now they’re having to spend months there because the door has been effectively closed. There are a number of policies that contributed to that. Now we estimate that something like 20,000 people have just been bottled up there, in Ciudad Juárez alone. I’m not talking about the rest of our 2,000 mile border. There are tens of thousand, and the shelter capacity (in Juarez) is only a little over 2,000. I visited a couple of shelters, and the situation is difficult, but people are heroically responding. I guess I’ve been to several shelters: parishes, Protestant churches, the Catholic Church has a shelter. We also have people in tents, right at the base of our bridges. These are primarily Mexicans who are seeking asylum in our country right now, and this is a new reality that has taken place over the last month or so.
Obviously, now that winter has reached our border region here, it’s more and more difficult for them. I’m very concerned about them. Last night the temperature reached about 32 degrees here on the border. If you’ve ever camped out in that weather before, you know you have to have the right equipment. Then there are the untold thousands who are in neither of those groups and are living on the streets of Ciudad Juarez, or perhaps they’re pooling what few resources they have together and renting an apartment, or hotel. They’re putting like 12 people in a small apartment. There are no social services reaching out to them. They’re probably leaving their kids in the apartment while they go seek work to pay for the next month’s rent. No one is watching those kids. No one is protecting those children. Those are the untold stories that I’m very, very concerned about, and I haven’t been able to visit with (them), I just know they’re there. So we’re trying to respond to those situations, and people have been quite generous to [donate to] the fund, although the need will outstrip whatever we raise.
Emma: There is so much to say about your recent pastoral letter, “Night Will Be No More.” I was very moved by it, I can only imagine it was a real balm to your community here in El Paso. But first I just want to ask, what was it like in the immediate aftermath of that devastating massacre, and what were you hearing from your people in El Paso in the days after, from your priests, from the many families who call El Paso and the church home?
Bishop Seitz: This was one of those events … I think our listeners could probably begin to get a feel for it if they think about 9/11. Now, it wasn’t on the 9/11 scale, right, but 9/11 had a way of just touching each of us personally, especially people out east, in the New York area, but even beyond. We all remember where we were. It was kind of like that here in El Paso. It turned our world upside down.
The first reports, as is often the case in one of these events, they thought there were multiple shooters — and this happened with 9/11 as well — it felt like our city was under attack. And in a certain sense it was. A man who lived 700 hundred miles away chose to come to El Paso, and to target people. Why? Because they were immigrants. Because they were Mexican in origin. Because they have brown skin. Those are the ones he shot. And so, the sense of vulnerability that it created for our community, and particularly for people of Latino origin, is something that most of us have never had to face. And for us it was extremely — what can I say — unsettling. In the days after the attack, that very day, I was out there, I went to the main county hospital, and spent a good part of the day there, and then at the repatriation center where they had the family members come, and wait for news. It was just such a horrendous day. People who just went out on a Saturday morning to buy something at Walmart lost their life or were injured in ways that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
It was an attack not only on individuals. It was an attack on our way of life, on our sense of identity, because we’re a border city. We’re more than that. People don’t understand what it means for us to be a border city. It means that we are one metropolitan community that has a line drawn across it. We were one community before there was a border here. We are proud Americans on this side, proud Mexicans on the other, and we’re proud of each other, because we belong to both communities. You’d be hard-pressed to find an El Pasoan who doesn’t have family in Ciudad Juarez, and vice versa. People live here, they work there. They live there, they go to school here. And also, with Fort Bliss, which has 30,000 military people right in the middle of our city, people are coming from all over the country. We don’t see those people who are coming from outside of our place or our culture as foreign to us. They are people. We see it as our place to welcome them, and we want them to say, “I feel like I’ve found a new home,” when they come here. So when this man came, and attacked people in the Walmart here, on a normal Saturday morning, because of who they were, we’ve experienced it as something that was attacking our way of life and our identity as a place of welcome.
Emma: And I think that’s where it is not too far off [from] 9/11, because that was really an attack on identity, and so was this. So I can see why, certainly, it would feel similar, and we were watching, and thinking of you all, and praying for you all in New York, but I still know that we can’t imagine, because this is your home, and so many people’s homes. I really appreciate you speaking to that. And in your letter, you chose Our Lady of Guadalupe as a person who could remind everyone that they matter. Can you say a little bit about why Guadalupe reminds each of us of this, that ‘Tu Vales’ as you say in your letter so many times? [This] is good, because I think everyone needs to hear that so many times.
Bishop Seitz: Yeah, “You’re a person of value, you count.”
Emma: And why do you think she is the right person to heal in this moment?
Bishop Seitz: Well, I think it’s interesting you say I chose Our Lady of Guadalupe. My first response would be: No, Our Lady of Guadalupe chose us. And that’s the wonderful thing, that we know that she chose us. From the time that the continent first received the faith, she was there, saying, “You know what, this faith isn’t from the outside. This faith is from within. It’s a fulfillment of everything that you’ve sought. And guess what? You’re not alone, even in this difficult time in your life.” Speaking to the Aztecs, she’s saying, “I’m your mother, and you’re dear to me. You matter, you count. And how important is that message today? As we face this attack, which represents a broader issue that has percolated under the surface of the American experience — sad to say — this experience of white supremacy. It can seem so subtle, so hidden. It can seem like something that in our advanced age we have surpassed or overcome.
Then something like this happens, and you see that this is a veneer. This man was not simply an isolated individual who was crazy. He was fed by this ideology of supremacy, which has various iterations, some of which are very out there and clear to anyone who adhere to it, and others which might seem more subtle but which, in a certain way, give … a certain sense of acceptability to the more extreme expressions it. Whenever one says, “What we’re experiencing on the southern border is an invasion. The people who are coming across are criminals and rapists” and highlights the rare instance of a violent act committed by an immigrant — as though in some way that it is representative of the entire flow of refugees coming across our border — when they do that, there is an implicit conclusion that people are being led to. [They are being led] to say: “These people are a threat to us. These people who speak Spanish and come from south of the border, and who happen to have brown-colored skin. These people need to be resisted.”
Emma: And in the letter you wrote a lot about the need for new leadership, and to not be afraid of powerful Latino voices, but I also have to think about our current leadership because our own president uses many of those hateful phrases — not occasionally but regularly. So what kind of responsibility do leaders like that bear when something so violent, as what happened in El Paso, happens? What’s their call to change?
Bishop Seitz: Well, I think we certainly have to call it out. We, as religious leaders. I have no desire whatsoever to get involved into politics — not that there’s anything bad about it. It’s important that citizens be involved in the government and that they express themselves. But I’m a religious leader, and my responsibility isn’t just to stay safe and un-threatened within the walls of my church. My call is to set forth Christian, Catholic principles, and do it clearly, and to be in some way a conscience, or to stimulate the conscience of not only the Catholic community but the nation. That’s the role of religion in society, and it’s an essential role. And so when an individual, or a group of people speak in a way that is contrary to these fundamental principles of the equal dignity of every person, then we need to speak out on this — as we in the Catholic faith have done, and must continue to do effectively on the pro-life issue but also when it comes in other forms in any place on the spectrum of life.
Emma: And I think maybe some of the subtler rhetoric around this is, “Oh, well the U.S just can’t handle this many more people, or just can’t handle these asylum seekers,” but I think El Paso offers quite a different opportunity, I would say. Because this Spring, there was a large uptick in the number of migrants entering the United States, particularly here in El Paso, and your community was able to really step up and show really amazing hospitality. So what do you think is so special about El Paso and its being able to provide that kind of hospitality and welcome?
Bishop Seitz: Yeah… You know, I am just completely unmoved by that argument that “We can’t handle anymore.” God help us, if we are that unwilling to reach out to people in need, to say that when we receive what is ultimately a miniscule flow of refugees compared to that which many other countries are experiencing. In the wealthiest, most prosperous nation in the world… How selfish can you be, frankly? I know people have real fears, and I’d love to speak to those fears, but… c’mon. Jordan has received nearly 2,000,000 (refugees), the little country of Jordan. Lebanon, even smaller, they’ve received about half of their total population in refugees. I’m not saying that doesn’t create issues in their country, it certainly does, but what we’ve received is a fraction of one percent… And these people are not coming over to tie into our welfare system. The truth is that we’ve excluded them from our welfare system; there are very few cases where they can receive any kind of aid, and they don’t want it. They are hardworking people. That’s all they know and all they want is the chance to support their children here. They’re being brought to the places they’ll stay initially by family members. It’s not a government problem. And immigrant peoples are safer, statistically, than people born here. So if you’re worried about threats to your safety, start deporting people who were born here because they’re the greater threat.
Emma: Yeah, that’s true. I think often the family aspect gets lost a lot, as well. Especially with derogatory [terms] like ‘chain migration’… people move with [and to] their families. That’s how people are supposed to move. They want to be with their family.
Bishop Seitz: Yes. May I comment on that?
Bishop Seitz: This attack on family-based migration is one of the most contradictory threats to our nation that I can imagine, because it’s being proposed as a protection, but it will do exactly the opposite. When people are connected to family and community, that’s when they can work together, pull themselves up. Because they’re connected and integrated, they belong. But if you start saying, “You can come here and work, if you have resources to impress us, but you can’t bring your family. You can’t take care of the people that are important to you,” that’s when you create the perfect seedbed for terrorism, frankly. So many of our immigration policies create the exact opposite effect of what’s being proposed in them, and this is certainly one of them.
Emma: Yeah. And, you’ve been Bishop here in El Paso since 2013?
Bishop Seitz: Correct.
Emma: I’m just curious, how has this city and its character converted you and brought you closer to the Gospel?
Bishop Seitz: That’s a great way to ask a question: “converted me and brought me closer to the Gospel.” Oh, wow, isn’t that great… I just feel so, so blessed that God has worked this way in my life. As a priest, you’re basically saying, “Lord, I’m going to serve you however you want, and I’m going to be obedient to my superiors, because I believe that the Spirit will work that way.” And this is one of those cases, where I never would have imagined in my wildest dreams, as a kid growing up in Wisconsin and then a priest in Dallas, that I would find myself in El Paso, Texas. But it has been such a blessing to me, and it has converted me, and it has called me more deeply into practicing the Gospel because this community is so rich in faith and the opportunities here are such that you can truly live the Gospel. I like to say that this is a place where you cannot live the faith abstractly. Now, really of course any Christian should be able to say that wherever they are, but I just have to say, “Well, true, but more so here.” We’ve got all of the challenges and all of the opportunities to live the Gospel here in a wonderful way, on this border where God loves to work, on the “peripheries” as Pope Francis would say.
Emma: One thing that was so beautiful about your letter, for me, was that you didn’t shy away at all from clearly defining, ‘This is white supremacy, this is racism.’ But you also sought to call everyone to conversion, not to cast them out. You wrote, “If there is anyone who feels so alone, so isolated, and so tortured that you feel your only way out is to succumb to the darkness of racism and violence and to pick up a gun, I say to you today, there is a place for you in our community and in our Church. Lay aside your weapons of hate, put away your fear. Here there is a teacher, a sister, a deacon, a priest, a counselor, a bishop, waiting to welcome you home and greet you with love. Tu vales.” I think a lot of people really struggle with naming sin, but then also calling people in at the same time, and you seem to do that so well. How do you approach that, and how do you think about those kinds of things in tension and also cooperation?
Bishop Seitz: To me it is just so Gospel, so Jesus. It’s the paradox of His teaching, that he came for us while, as Saint Paul says, “While we were still sinners, he loved us.” And so, that has to be the way that we approach the faith. If you ever find yourself thinking in categories of us and them, the good and the evil ones, well, check yourself. Because those people you’re calling ‘them,’ those people you’re calling ‘other,’ they’re the ones that Jesus told us we should love in a special way. Love your enemies, do not hurt them. If you love just those who love you, what good is that? So, our love has to extend even — or shall I say especially — to those that we’re challenging, that we’re confronting with the truth. It has to extend even to that man who took out his assault weapon on August 3. And unless we’re willing to do that, we haven’t fully accepted the Gospel.
Emma: And I imagine this wonderful and family-oriented community is still struggling with a lot of grief and fear from that August 3rd day. How can people who don’t don’t live in El Paso still support this community, and also its sister city in Juarez?
Bishop Seitz: Yes, there is still a lot of healing to be done here. So many families were affected. 22 were killed, another 26 were physically injured, but thousands of people were actually hurt by this event in very direct ways. They were present in the Walmart. They had family who were present in the Walmart. They were traumatized by these events. And more so, as I indicated earlier, not just because 22 individuals were killed and others [were] hurt, but because it was an attack that was specifically directed against people of color. So the trauma is great, and certainly your prayers are the first and most important thing to offer us. Beyond that, I think people have been extremely generous to the victims and in their name, I thank you for that. We’ve raised I believe over $9,000,000 for a fund. I feel the response has been incredible, and it will be very helpful.
But two things I’d like to invite you to do, if your heart has been moved and you would like to stand in solidarity with us here. Number one: Come and visit us. We are a place of welcome, in a way it’s one of the best responses to that attack is to come in friendship and love and know us and know the refugees personally. If you are the biggest supporter of closing down the border, well, come on down and just give us a chance to talk to you and to let you visit and see the reality here. Secondly, if you would like to help us financially, my biggest concern as I mentioned is not here on the El Paso side right now, but across in our sister city of Juarez. We need to do something to assist those people there, to assist those children and babies who have fled their home to save their lives and now are struggling to protect and preserve their lives. So, help our border refugee assistance fund, and to do that, just seek out the website of the Diocese of El Paso, elpasodiocese.org, and you’ll find right near the top of the page an opportunity to be part of this work that we’re seeking to do for our brothers and sisters.
Emma: Alright. Thank you, Bishop. I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, I know you’ve got a flight later this afternoon. But is there anything else you wanted to share with me, or to share with our listeners?
Bishop Seitz: Well, thank you very much for your interest and your concern, thank you for coming to El Paso to see it in person. Pray for us. Thank you for the work of the Center for Migration Studies, and let’s continue to work together in the name of Jesus Christ to create one great family of human beings, where people will see us and … exclaim, “See how they love another!”
Emma: CMSOnAir’s theme music is provided by Danny Duberstein and The Music Case. To get more information on CMS’s research, publications, and events, visit us at cmsny.org.
This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and style.