NOGALES, Ariz. — A delegation of Catholic leaders from across the United States visited Arizona's border with Mexico on Monday and Tuesday to call for overhauling the nation's immigration policy.
At a Mass held under the shadow of the border fence Tuesday morning, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, called on Congress for comprehensive immigration reform this year.
"The system is broken, causes terrible suffering and is a waste of human resources," said O'Malley.
"We've lost the sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. ... America at its best is not the bigotry and xenophobia of the know-nothings but the welcome of The New Colussus."
O'Malley was accompanied by eight other members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and 17 priests. The clergy gave communion to people on the Mexican side of the fence as part of the Mass.
"We see this as a moral issue, as an ethical issue," said Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Tucson Diocese. Kicanas said the bishops are concerned about the deaths of migrants in the desert "and the families who are separated because of deportations, which we see all the time in our parishes."
Dozens of immigrants die each year in the brutal desert terrain while trying to cross illegally into the United States along the roughly 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico. The Catholic leaders note that immigrants are trying to find better lives and jobs in America and that thousands of them have died crossing the Southwest desert in recent decades.
"What we fail to remember in this debate is the human aspect of immigration — that immigration is primarily about human beings, not economic or social issues," said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle and chairman of the conference's Committee on Migration. "Those who have died, and those deported each day, have the same value and innate God-given dignity as all persons, yet we ignore their suffering and their deaths."
The committee, which favors a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants, on Friday called on Catholics to pray, fast and take action for an immigration overhaul, such as sending members of Congress electronic postcards advocating change.
On Monday, the bishops walked through the desert in Green Valley, along a route near Interstate 10 often used by migrants; they visited a shelter and an aid center for migrants operated by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora; and they toured the border with the Border Patrol. They also planned visits today to the federal courthouse in Tucson to observe deportation hearings and to the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office. That office stores and tries to identify most remains of migrants found in the desert.
The push for an immigration overhaul in Congress has been stalled for months, with Democrats and Republicans unable to reach an agreement over the divisive issue.
House Democrats last week tried to force a vote on a comprehensive immigration bill, an effort that is likely to fail given Republican reluctance to address the topic in an election year.
The Senate passed a comprehensive bill with bipartisan support last June, but the measure stalled in the Republican-controlled House where Republicans have argued for a piecemeal approach to overhauling the system.
In preparation for the bishops' visit to the border, Kicanas said he met with Manuel Padilla, the Border Patrol's Tucson sector chief.
"He was worried about the increasing number of women and unaccompanied children they're seeing cross and about what will happen this summer," Kicanas said.
Contributing: The Associated Press