In advance of Pope Francis’ arrival in Juarez, Mexico for a Papal Mass, Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) activists held an event Tuesday at the Anapra border fence to speak out against what they described as the suffering, abuse and exploitation of immigrants moving between the United States and Mexico and Central America.
Nearly 300 people gathered, mostly on the U.S. side of the fence — adorned with a large “#ImmigrantLivesMatter” sign — to hear speeches from immigrants living in the United States.
Fernando Garcia, executive director of BNHR, said that the pope’s visit would serve as a moment of reflection for those fighting for immigration reform. He also told the Observer that many undocumented immigrants in the United States used the event as an opportunity to get close to the border fence to see their relatives, a move that would otherwise be too risky under normal circumstances, but was made possible by the presence of large crowds and media coverage.
One of the speakers, 19-year-old Liliana Reyes, said she migrated to the United States from Mexico nine years ago and has since been unable to return to her family, who stood pressed against the fence just a few feet away.
Her husband, 23-year-old Roberto Reyes, said he hoped the pope’s message would help bring about positive change for families like his. “It’s big because he’s never been here before, and things change when he comes.”
Roberto Ortega, a 56-year-old car mechanic from Juarez, said he was waiting at the fence to see his brother and nieces in the United States.
“Maybe [Pope Francis] can change things a little,” Ortega said. “It’s nice to see people over there come and the people over here come. You can see there’s really no difference.”
However, some at the event were cynical about the pope’s ability to make an impact on immigration policy.
“I don’t care about the pope,” said Jesus Alberto Martinez, 21, who was waiting on the Mexican side to see his two brothers for the first time in 17 years. “It’s just another way for the government to put on a show and make money.”
“Everything is political, everything is for show,” said Berenice Perez, 35, a speaker at the event and a migrant who said she crossed the border, while pregnant, with the aid of smugglers. “I don’t think the pope can solve our problem. People need to change by voting.”
During the two-hour event, children on the U.S. side released red and white balloons over the fence, where Border Patrol and local police stood stationed nearby.
The pope is scheduled to hold Mass at the border of Juarez and El Paso on Wednesday. More than 200,000 are estimated to cross into Juarez for the service, though just 500 — selected by the El Paso Diocese — will be allowed near enough to Pope Francis, on the El Paso side, to receive his blessing in person.