People asked if Father Edward Becker was afraid during his visit to a church near the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year.
No. He was just sad.
“Jesus knows from his own personal experience what the Venezuelan refugees at Sacred Heart Church in El Paso, Texas, are and have been experiencing,” Fr. Becker stated.
“I am pretty sure that Jesus wants us to do whatever we reasonably can to love and care for these brothers and sisters of his and ours,” he said.
Fr. Becker, a Martinsburg native, is a priest of the Diocese of Orange, California.
He and his sister, Jean Becker, a Houston resident who also grew up in Martinsburg, traveled to El Paso last December for Fr. Becker to preside at a wedding in Sacred Heart Church.
The church historically has been a first stop for immigrants coming over the U.S.-Mexico border into El Paso.
In his coming and going from the parish, Fr. Becker interacted with Venezuelan asylum-seekers and witnessed firsthand the local Church’s response to a sudden influx of people in need of great help.
The pastor and staff of Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso told Fr. Becker that for weeks, hundreds of Venezuelan asylum-seekers had been making their way to the church after crossing the border in or near the city.
The migrants had been shut out of city-run shelters in El Paso, and the federal government was unwilling either to process them for possible asylum or send them back to Mexico or their native Venezuela.
Sacred Heart had opened its doors and was providing food and shelter to hundreds of migrants.
In a Jan. 8 blog post, Fr. Becker described Sacred Heart as “ground zero for the current Title 42 immigration crisis centered in El Paso,” and asked for prayers for the people of the parish who were helping the asylum-seekers.
“At night, the parish opened its parish hall as an overnight shelter for women and children,” the priest noted.
There wasn’t enough room in the hall to shelter the men. Fr. Becker said that although the city was otherwise largely unhelpful, it did provide a couple of municipal buses for the men to sleep in at night.
The parish provided regular meals to the stranded asylum-seekers, with help from a neighboring congregation.
“One evening, the parish faith formation director asked his mother to come and cook for everyone,” Fr. Becker wrote. “Now that is a super mom!”
Safer than they were
Title 42, a federal public health rule enforced by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, permits immigration officials to block migrants at the border from seeking asylum from entry.
Title 42 was set to end last December, but the U.S. Supreme Court in an emergency order Dec. 27 decided to keep it in effect indefinitely.
Fr. Becker said he walked several times among the Venezuelan people gathered on the street around Sacred Heart Church, “able to offer a smile and kind word to them but not much else.”
“But I also had confidence that the Sacred Heart parish community was taking good care of them,” he stated.
Sacred Heart’s pastor and staff shared stories their guests had told them about the extreme danger and injustice that they experienced in their homeland that caused them to decide to escape and make the long, difficult journey toward the United States.
“A common theme has been that as dangerous and difficult as it has been to migrate to the United States, their current limbo at Sacred Heart Church has been a huge improvement over their lives back in Venezuela,” Fr. Becker wrote.
The Biden Administration recently announced plans to issue a temporary rule blocking asylum-seekers who cross the border without authorization or who do not first apply for protections in other nations before coming to the United States.
Catholic immigration advocates condemned the proposal.
U.S. immigration policy generally differentiates those fleeing persecution in other countries from other migrants who cross the border unlawfully. The proposal, which the administration has characterized as temporary, would scale back that approach.
The U.S. Catholic bishops voiced concern the rule would impose punitive restrictions on the right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a statement, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, said the USCCB is “deeply troubled by this proposal, which perpetuates the misguided notion that heavy-handed enforcement measures are a viable solution to increased migration and forced displacement.”
“Decades of similar approaches have demonstrated otherwise,” Bishop Seitz stated. The El Paso bishop said the U.S. bishops have recognized “our country’s right to maintain its borders,” but have “consistently rejected policies that weaken asylum access for those most in need of relief and expose them to further danger.”
He added that while the USCCB appreciates the administration’s “desire to expand lawful pathways to the United States, especially through increased refugee processing,” he emphasized those efforts should not take place “at the expense of vulnerable persons urgently seeking protection at our border.”
“Above all, the sanctity of human life remains paramount,” said Bishop Seitz.
In God’s hands
Over time, policy changes and increased enforcement at the border reduced in the number of migrants staying at Sacred Heart from over 500 to about 50, according to a Feb. 6 article in El Paso Matters, a nonprofit local media organization.
Fr. Becker is convinced that God is pleased with the faith in action displayed by El Paso’s Sacred Heart parishioners and wants others to assist them.
At very least, the priest stated, “we can pray for all of our brothers and sisters in Christ and the sons and daughters of God who are caught up in this current Title 42 humanitarian crisis, including the Venezuelan refugees at Sacred Heart Parish.”
“We also can pray for the Sacred Heart parish staff and parishioners who are caring for them as best they can,” he said. “Let us keep praying, and let us encourage our elected officials to resolve this crisis sooner rather than later.”
Ms. Scanlon is a national reporter covering Washington for OSV News.
Maria-Pia Chin, Spanish editor for OSV News, contributed to this report.