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Catholic bishops hold mass for thousands who died crossing border

In the shadow of the border fence that divides Nogales between the United States and Mexico, Roman Catholic leaders celebrated mass on Tuesday in an attempt to highlight the fateful consequences of current U.S. immigration policies. 

Led by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the delegation of seven Catholic bishops traveled around the border region, visiting the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Son., walking through a section of the desert where thousands have died, and visiting with officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

Several hundred people attended the mass at 9 a.m. on International Street and Nelson Avenue. Around a dozen watched through the fence from Mexico. 

The mass was followed with Holy Communion. People in Mexico pushed their hands through the bars and received wafers as a blessing from O'Malley and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of the Tucson Diocese. The bishops also laid two wreaths to mark the 6,000 who have died crossing U.S. deserts since 1998. 

This followed a similar event in Lampedusa Italy, where Pope Francis threw a wreath in the Mediterranean Sea to remember those migrants who have died trying to get to Europe. O'Malley drew a parallel between Lampedusa and Nogales. 

During a press conference held after the mass, O'Malley argued that immigration reform was necessary. 

"This is not just a political or economic problem," O'Malley said. "This is a moral problem."

Seattle Bishop Eusebio Elizondo called for Congress to pass immigration reform before the end of the year. 

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"It is a moral imperative that Congress acts this year," he said. "Each day families are being divided." 

"Is this how we invest in our young citizens," he asked. "We are undermining the trust in America that future leaders may have. When their own government, whose purpose is to protect these children, takes their father or their mother away, there is a large social cost in inaction. It's a price we pay every day, and will pay in the future." 

Later, Elizondo referred to the death of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was killed by U.S. border agents in Nogales on October 10, 2012. 

"We ask for the investigation into the death of Jose Antonio to be completed soon," he said. 

During the press conference, Fatima Rojas, whose sister was recently deported, walked on stage and asked to read a statement. With Kicanas at her side, she asked the clergy to help her family and stop deportations. 

Even as immigration reform remains derailed in Congress, the Obama administration has deported nearly two million people since 2008. Nearly 30,000 immigrants remain in detention. 

Though the administration has touted statistics from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that 59 percent are non-citizens with criminal records, many those people were expelled for non-violent offenses — nearly 60 percent for misdemeanors punishable by less than one year in prison. 

Near the end of the press conference, O'Malley said, "The holy father is watching and he is concerned." 

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Paul M. Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Cardinal Sean O'Malley hands out communion wafers through the fence that cuts Ambos Nogales in two. The communion was part of a mass, held in the city during a border tour by seven Catholic bishops.