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Pope ends Mexico trip with prison, U.S. border trips

Nicole Winfield and Christopher Sherman
Associated Press

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — In a moment filled with powerful political symbolism, Pope Francis prayed Wednesday at Mexico’s dusty northern border for the thousands of migrants who have died trying to reach the United States and appealed for governments to open their hearts, if not their borders, to the “human tragedy that is forced migration.”

Pope Francis waves at the faithful on his way to the aiport of Mexico City to fly to Ciudad Juarez on the last day of his visit to Mexico, on February 17, 2016.

“No more death! No more exploitation!” he implored.

It was the most poignant moment of Francis’ five-day trip to Mexico and one of the most powerful images in recent times: History’s first Latin American pope, who has demanded countries welcome people fleeing persecution, war and poverty, praying at the border between Mexico and El Paso, Texas at a time of soaring anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S. presidential campaign.

Francis stopped short of calling for the U.S. to open its borders during a Mass just 800 yards from the frontier. But in his homily beamed live into the Sun Bowl stadium on the El Paso side, Francis called for “open hearts” and recognition that the thousands of Central and South Americans who are fleeing gangland executions and extortion in their homelands are victims of the worst forms of exploitation.

“We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant the migration of thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones,” he said. “They are our brothers and sisters, who are being expelled by poverty and violence, drug trafficking and organized crime.”

Francis, a son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, had wanted to cross the border in solidarity with other migrants when he visited the U.S. last fall. That wasn’t possible for logistical reasons, so he did the next best thing on Wednesday by coming within a stone’s throw of the fence and laying a bouquet of flowers next to a large crucifix that is to remain at the site as a monument to his visit. As the faithful looked on from both sides of the border, Francis blessed the cross and three smaller ones, which the Vatican said were to be sent to the diocese of Ciudad Juarez, Las Cruces and El Paso.

While migrant activists on both sides of the border cheered the gestures, Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump criticized it last week as a politicized and ill-informed move.

“I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico,” Trump said in an interview with Fox television. “I think Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They’re making a fortune, and we’re losing.”

He and GOP hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz have vowed to expel all the estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally and build a wall along the border from Texas to California.

Asked to comment on the criticism, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Tuesday the pope is concerned about the plight of migrants everywhere, not just in the United States.

“The pope always talks about migration problems all around the world, of the duties we have to solve these problems in a humane manner, of hosting those who come from other countries in search of a life of dignity and peace,” Lombardi said.

The border Mass marked the climactic end of Francis’ five-day swing through some of Mexico’s poorest and most marginal states, where drug-fueled violence has soared thanks to the complicity of police and other public institutions. Francis took both church and state to task for failing their people and urged the next generations to resist the lure of the drug trade.

On Wednesday, Francis warned that without job opportunities, Mexico’s youth risk being seduced into the drug trade.