El Paso leaders approve plans for Pope visit to border

AP News
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Posted: Jan 26, 2016 8:26 PM
El Paso leaders approve plans for Pope visit to border

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Declaring it an "unparalleled high profile event," the El Paso City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a set of plans for Pope Francis' visit to neighboring Ciudad Juárez.

Leaders say the pope's visit to Juárez at the end of a five-day tour of Mexico will draw hundreds of thousands to both cities.

El Paso's plans include closing a portion of a major border highway, several downtown neighborhoods and city government for the day. The city estimates this will cost nearly $1 million in city services, salaries and equipment. At least two El Paso school districts are also closing the day of the visit, scheduled for Feb. 17.

"This is such a positive thing for our community," El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said. "I'll tell everyone, El Paso is Juárez and Juárez is El Paso."

Many El Paso residents work in Juárez and vice versa. Although Pope Francis won't be crossing over to El Paso, the city is prepping for the many who will attempt to hear a Mass held on a large Juárez field next to the international boundary. The Catholic Diocese of El Paso is hosting a live-stream public viewing event at the Sun Bowl, a stadium that holds over 50,000 people. The event will include musical performances and will cost $18 per person.

The council voted unanimously on four measures that help police and other emergency responders plan their response to the visit.

Rep. Cortney Carlisle Niland said she was concerned about the large number of residential streets being shut down.

"It's a tremendous amount of residents," said Niland, who added that it's a social justice issue for the largely low-income neighborhood along the international border to be shut down.

City manager Tommy Gonzalez said the city was doing community outreach, including door-to-door notifications to residents in the areas affected by closures.

El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said the papal visit poses a number of public safety issues not only in Juárez but in El Paso.

"One of the reasons we're controlling that area is to protect that area itself," Allen said. "Unfortunately this is not the ideal situation that we're dealing with. We're gonna have to respond to something that's not even in our country."

The public safety response encompasses local, state and federal officials. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operations will be in the air and coordinating aviation law enforcement actions. Border Patrol agents will also be assisting.

All ports of entry will be open, staffed with extra officers and opened for longer hours, but Customs and Border Protection says residents should expect long wait times regardless.

The pontiff's visit is especially significant in a largely Catholic region. Over 80 percent of El Paso residents are Hispanic, and nearly 35 percent of Hispanics are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center.

Preparations are also in full swing in Juárez, which also expects large crowds for the visit. In Ciudad Juarez, advertisements for Pope Francis' upcoming trip are all over the city, especially near its main cathedral.

Images of the pope are shown with the words "Ciudad Juarez is love" in an attempt to transform the city's image as a drug violence-ridden one.

The pope is expected to discuss immigration to the U.S. and poverty on both sides of the border.