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Mass at border calls attention to plight of immigrants

| Tuesday, April 1, 2014, 8:54 p.m.

NOGALES, Ariz. — Roman Catholic leaders made a rare visit to the border and celebrated Mass on Tuesday in the shadow of the fence separating the United States and Mexico.

The clergy offered Communion through the steel barrier to people on the Mexican side, seeking to bring attention to the plight of immigrants.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, leader of the Archdiocese of Boston, led a delegation of bishops from around the country and Mexico in the trip to the border ­— less than a week after President Obama discussed immigration reform in a meeting with Pope Francis.

The bishops toured the border city of Nogales — walking along a notorious section of the border that once was a popular crossing point for drug and immigrant smugglers and celebrating Mass just a few feet from the fence.

The Catholic leaders believe that immigration is a humanitarian issue that deserves urgent attention by Congress. They cite the dozens of immigrants who 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 bishops noted that the immigrants simply are trying to find better lives in America.

“This is not just a political or economic problem,” O'Malley said. “This is a moral problem.”

O'Malley grew up in the South Hills, attended elementary schools in Pittsburgh and attended St. Fidelis Seminary in Herman in Butler County.

Several hundred people attended the Mass, which was translated into Spanish, and a few dozen people peered through the border fence from Mexico to watch the ceremony. O'Malley and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Diocese of Tucson offered wafers through the fence, providing people in Mexico a blessing as some of the recipients broke down in tears.

During the Mass, the clergy laid a wreath at the border wall to remember those who have died. Last year in Italy, the pope threw a wreath into the Mediterranean Sea to remember migrants who died attempting to reach Europe.

The push for immigration reform in Congress has been stalled for months, with Democrats and Republicans unable to reach an agreement.

House Democrats last week tried to force a vote on a comprehensive immigration bill — an effort that likely will fail, given Republican reluctance to address the topic in an election year while all signs point to major gains for the GOP in the Nov. 4 midterm elections.

The Senate passed a comprehensive bill in June, but the measure stalled in the GOP-controlled House, where Republicans have argued for a piecemeal approach.

Arizona state Sen. Al Melvin, a Republican running for governor, said the bishops' visit will do little to solve problems on the border. He said developing private-sector jobs in northern Mexico and securing the border to prevent drug and human trafficking are needed to bring stability to both sides of the international boundary.

“Frankly — and I am a Catholic — I think this is irresponsible of these bishops to be down there,” Melvin said. “They are not bringing stability to the border. They are adding to the chaos of the border. And it's not helping to save lives. If anything, I believe it will contribute to more lives being lost.”

The Tribune Review contributed to this story.

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