PHOENIX — Details about road closures, possible delays at border crossings and a celebration on the U.S. side are surfacing as El Paso, Texas, prepares for the pope’s upcoming visit to its sister city, Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.
The city of El Paso announced that it will restrict access to roads and neighborhoods near the international border Feb. 17, when Pope Francis celebrates an open-air Mass in Juarez.
A portion of the Cesar Chavez Border Highway will be closed to vehicles and pedestrians for 24 hours. Other nearby roads will be shut down for shorter periods. Many El Paso schools and city offices will close that day.
The El Paso Times daily newspaper reported that the road closures strayed from previous plans that had been considered, some of which would have allowed people to walk to the highway to be near the site of the papal Mass.
Mayor Oscar Leeser cited security and safety as the reasons for the restrictions.
“The most important part of our role is for the safety for the pope and our community,” he told a Jan. 25 media conference.
“El Paso is Juarez and Juarez is El Paso,” Leeser said. “We’re one city and one community.”
The Mass will take place at the old Juarez fairgrounds next to Benito Juarez Olympic Stadium on the last day of Pope Francis’ trip to Mexico, which starts Feb. 12. More than 220,000 people are expected to attend the liturgy. Mexican authorities said as many as 450,000 people may arrive for the Mass or to see Pope Francis ride along in his popemobile.
Anticipating an influx of border crossers, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is extending service hours and staffing at the area’s ports of entry Feb. 15-19. The agency warned people who plan to cross the border during that time to anticipate delays.
Passenger vehicles and pedestrians may experience “longer than normal” processing times at ports of entry, it said in a statement. The release reminded travelers that they will need appropriate documents to enter the U.S. from Mexico.
The agency said it will provide crossing updates via Twitter @CBPWestTexas before, during and after the pope’s visit.
Mexican officials said people coming from the U.S. into Mexico at the Bridge of the Americas — the most heavily traveled crossing between the two countries — may experience congestion because of Juarez road closures related to the pope’s visit.
The Stanton Street Bridge in downtown El Paso or the Santa Teresa crossing west of El Paso in New Mexico were mentioned as alternative entry points.
A U.S. State Department travel warning for certain places in Mexico was last updated Jan. 19 and includes Ciudad Juarez. The warning said U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery by organized criminal groups in various Mexican states. It said to “exercise caution” when traveling to business and shopping districts in northeast Juarez and its major industrial parks.
As of Jan. 27, the Diocese of Juarez had yet to distribute tickets for the papal Mass. Church officials said that tickets would be made available to its parishes to hand out. The Diocese of El Paso was to receive 5,000 tickets.
People who cannot or do not want to travel to Mexico to catch a glimpse of the pope Feb. 17 can attend a watch party that day at Sun Bowl Stadium on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso.
The “Two Nations, One Faith” celebration hosted by the Diocese of El Paso will feature a live telecast of the papal Mass. Country music star Collin Raye, artist Andrea Thomas and singer-songwriter Tony Melendez, who was born without arms and plays guitar with his feet, are set to perform prior to the telecast. The program also includes the Tigua Indian Nation dancers, the El Paso diocesan choir, youth choir Elohim and local mariachi bands and “matachines,” or dancers.
Ahead of the pope’s visit, the Hope Border Institute planned to hold two binational encuentros on the topic of immigration. The grass-roots Catholic-run group was to host the gatherings at St. Mark’s Church in El Paso Jan. 30 and at the diocesan Center for Evangelization and Catechesis in Juarez Feb. 6.
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Editors: Tickets for the “Two Nations, One Faith” event are $18 each. More information is available at www.twonationsonefaith.com.