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Pope Francis likely to talk immigration at U.S.-Mexico border – but who's listening?

  • Pope Francis receives a cross made by an inmate at the CeReSo n. 3 prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. The pontiff is wrapping up his trip to Mexico on Wednesday with a visit in the prison, just days after a riot in another lockup killed 49 inmates, and a stop at the Texas border when immigration is a hot issue for the U.S. presidential campaign.  (Gabriel Bouys/Pool photo via AP)

    Pope Francis receives a cross made by an inmate at the CeReSo n. 3 prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. The pontiff is wrapping up his trip to Mexico on Wednesday with a visit in the prison, just days after a riot in another lockup killed 49 inmates, and a stop at the Texas border when immigration is a hot issue for the U.S. presidential campaign. (Gabriel Bouys/Pool photo via AP)

  • Immigration demonstrators in Ciudad Juarez the morning before Pope Francis' arrival. Esmeralda Dominguez of Denver, stands in the middle wearing a straw hat. (Photo: Jan-Albert Hootsen/Fox News Latino)

    Immigration demonstrators in Ciudad Juarez the morning before Pope Francis' arrival. Esmeralda Dominguez of Denver, stands in the middle wearing a straw hat. (Photo: Jan-Albert Hootsen/Fox News Latino)

  • A crowd awaits the arrival of Pope Francis at Cereso 3 State Prison in Ciudad Juarez. (Photo: Jan-Albert Hootsen/Fox News Latino)

    A crowd awaits the arrival of Pope Francis at Cereso 3 State Prison in Ciudad Juarez. (Photo: Jan-Albert Hootsen/Fox News Latino)

With the Santa Fe Street Bridge, which connects this rugged border city with El Paso, as a backdrop, 20 or so women held up banners with slogans reading “We belong together” and images of the Virgin of Guadalupe as they sang and walked towards Juárez's cathedral.

“We're sick of being treated like criminals,” 33-year old Esmeralda Domínguez told Fox News Latino during the march, which took place Tuesday morning, a little less than 24 hours before Pope Francis was expected to arrive here. “We are not a political game — we are families that are being separated.”

Domínguez came to Juárez from Denver, and, like nearly all the women marching, she was born to Mexican migrants but has earned American citizenship. She traveled to Mexico for the pope’s visit with her 11-year-old son. Her husband was unable to come, because he entered the U.S. illegally and risks deportation.

Nearly all of the women marching in Ciudad Juárez's old center, mostly members of unions and various NGOs, had similar personal stories. They marched to protest mass deportations of undocumented migrants and what they believe is an increasingly poisonous debate on immigration in the U.S.

They eagerly anticipated the arrival of Pope Francis, who chose to make the border city the last stop of his six day-trip to Mexico. The pontiff was scheduled to visit a local penitentiary in the early afternoon and meet with captains of industry and laborers later in the day. His last activity in the border area will be a Mass in front of a crowd of thousands, on an old fair grounds in plain sight of El Paso's high-rise buildings, just across the river.

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He is expected during his sermon to address the issue of migration and to offer prayers for the thousands of migrants who have died trying to cross the border in recent years.

“When the pope came to Washington, D.C., he said that, as a son of migrants himself, he identifies with all of us,” Domínguez said. “The pope is a diplomatic and spiritual leader. When he speaks, people listen.”

But who, exactly, will be listening?

“The subject of migration is something that everyone here wants the pope to talk about,” Jesús Peña, professor of migration issues at the Juárez campus of the College of the Northern Border, told FNL. “Many here think or hope that he will only complain about the United States, about xenophobia and how migrants are treated there," he added, "but I believe that he will also talk about Mexico itself.”

“In Latin America we tend to treat the United States as the bad guy, but that's not a perspective that leads to any productive kind of discussion,” Peña said.

Francis' visit to Ciudad Juárez is laden with emotion on many fronts. Over the past few months, the municipal government and local business elites have framed the pontiff's arrival as proof that the city has come a long way from its nightmarish days as the murder capital of the world.

Immigration and human rights activists as well as victims of violence, on the other hand, have attempted to place their grievances at the forefront.

“There's a hostile tone in the presidential campaign in the U.S. presidency,” Blanca Navarrete, of the Binational Defense and Advocacy Program – or PDIB in its Spanish acronym, an immigration-rights group – told FNL. “We're hoping for a message of solidarity and support, and that he will ask for respect for migrants.”

The U.S. and Mexico have been increasingly at odds over migration in recent years. Mexico continues to decry the sometimes harsh treatment of deportees as well as what is seen as the overly aggressive behavior of U.S. Border Patrol agents – symbolized here by the killing in 2010 of teenager Adrián Hernández near the Santa Fe bridge.

But the U.S. has been able to pressure Mexico into cracking down on the tens of thousands of undocumented Central American migrants heading north. 

Peña of the College of the Northern Border, doesn’t think Francis is likely to have much impact on actual immigration policy – rather, he believes his position and influence have a better chance of changing hearts and minds.

“I am especially looking at the way ordinary Mexicans may be pulled out of their passivity vis-à-vis the plight of Central Americans travelling through their country,” he told FNL. 

“Members of organized crime are not the only ones taking advantage of migrants – the whole country does. I doubt that human traffickers and members of organized crime will be interested in what [Francis] has to say, but the vast majority of the population is. He will make a plea to their humanity, and I expect many of them will listen.”

Whether that will also be the case north of the border remains to be seen, although tens of thousands in El Paso are expected to listen to his Mass.

Ironically, one U.S. politician who has apparently been paying attention to the pope is none other than Donald Trump himself. The GOP front-runner who has built his campaign on the idea of building a wall along the southern border (and presenting the bill to Mexico) last week lashed out at the pope, accusing him of being “political” and not understanding border security.

“Donald Trump now has a serious chance of becoming the Republican nominee,” Peña told FNL. “Here in Mexico people laughed at him, ridiculed him, said that he didn't know anything about Mexico – but I think the laughing has stopped now.”

“I actually believe that, in a way, Donald Trump has done all of us [Mexicans] a service, because his comments have revealed the fallacies of anti-migration rhetoric,” he added. “People like Donald Trump are actually the ones who don't understand migration and the border.”

Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen