As pastor of St. Mark’s Church, a parish on El Paso’s mostly Hispanic east side, Monsignor Arturo Banuelas hears frustrated parishioners lament that their voices aren’t being heard in the public square.
Some members of the roughly 2,500 families that comprise St. Mark’s share with him concerns common in the 2016 election, such as anxiety over education, health care and jobs. But with the prospect of a new wall looming over this border town, immigration has taken center stage and the priest has urged his flock to take action.
“Our parish decided that we needed to do a voter registration drive to start getting people engaged in the process of voting and having their voice heard,” Msgr. Banuelas told America. “We were saying, look, be part of this process. Make your voice heard. It’s your responsibility to take care of the common good in this community and you can do that by voting.”
Hispanic-Americans vote at lower rates than other Americans, and El Paso County in particular, one of Texas’ bluest, has historically ranked near the bottom in terms of Texas voting. So earlier this fall, St. Mark’s hosted a training session with city officials about how to conduct voter registration drives. Representatives from six other local parishes attended.
At St. Mark’s, registration drives were held on the first two weekends in October, during which about 750 people registered to vote. Those attending the trainings promised to register more people on their own.
“These folks are now going to take people, their neighbors and friends, to early voting,” Msgr. Banuelas said. “During Election Day next Tuesday, parishioners are going to take other people to go vote. It’s a good start for us.”
Early voting in El Paso, where about a quarter of the city’s 600,000 residents live in poverty, is on track to break records. Women and voters who stayed home in 2012 are driving the higher numbers, the El Paso Times reported this week.
Though reliably red Texas is expected to pick Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton, polls show the race is closer than in previous years. Overall, Hispanic Catholics strongly prefer Clinton, who has promised to push comprehensive immigration reform in her first 100 days in office and who picked a running mate who has delivered stump speeches entirely in Spanish.
The registration drive at St. Mark’s was held in collaboration with the Hope Border Institute, an El Paso-based organization that promotes Catholic social teaching in cities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Over the course of seven weeks beginning in August, the group hosted a series of workshops entitled “The Border Votes” about issues they say Catholics should consider in the voting booth, including global migration, the environment, an “economy that kills” and life issues.
Dylan Corbett, who heads the organization, said that the efforts to register new voters and get them to the polls extend beyond simply affecting the presidential election. “Historically, border counties are ignored by the rest of the state,” he said, and the voter registration drive is part of an effort to give local residents the ability to stand up to politicians.
“They paint the border as this dangerous, chaotic place when it’s just not true,” he said.
Mr. Corbett noted that in recent years the state has allocated billions of dollars to patrol the border while, in his opinion, neglecting much needed economic development that could improve the lives of average Texans. “Border communities are among the poorest in the state and there’s no comparative investment in the well being of these communities,” he said.
Catholic bishops—and I.R.S. regulations—prohibit churches from endorsing candidates or engaging in partisan politics. But parish leaders are encouraged to speak about issues important to the faith, including the duty to vote.
To that end, the training sessions in El Paso used excerpts from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ voting guide “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” as well as a publication distributed by the Franciscan Action Network called A Revolution of Tenderness: A 2016 Voter Election Guide.
Participants used study guides, printed in English and Spanish, that contained Scripture passages, excerpts from speeches and writings by Pope Francis and a list of current events pertinent to Catholic social teaching.
Msgr. Banuelas said his church’s get out the vote effort has a greater significance than just turning out votes for either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton.
“Hispanics in this area have not always felt that their voices have been recognized or heard,” he said. “And so, the push is, if we don’t vote, we will remain invisible.”
He said that, without a doubt, issues related to immigration have been the most talked about in his parish in the months leading up to the election.
“In our area immigration is a big area because we’re on the border. It affects us,” he said. “All of us know someone, either in our families or our friends and neighbors, who are immigrants or who are suffering because of the effects of an unjust immigration system that we have in our country.”
Polls show Americans divided on the issue of immigration.
About four in 10 Americans said they support Mr. Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the southern border while two in 10 want undocumented people to be deported, according to a June study from the Public Religion Research Institute. But most Americans, according to the same study, prefer immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million people living illegally in the United States.
Nichole Flores, a professor at the University of Virginia who leads a seminar on religion and politics, said she’s been heartened to hear some Catholics talk about immigration as a “non-negotiable” when it comes to voting. “Immigration, responsibility to refugees, migrants and those seeking asylum, those are not-negotiable issues. Church teaching is quite clear on them,” Ms. Flores said.
Msgr. Banuelas said the visit to the El Paso border by Pope Francis in February helped frame immigration in a positive light for American Catholics.
Before celebrating an open air Mass in Juarez, Mexico, Pope Francis faced worshippers gathered in El Paso on the bank of the Rio Grande, separated by several layers of fences and barbed wire. He prayed for those who died trying to enter the United States.
“We’ve got to look at immigrants as coming to contribute to the making of a better nation instead of looking at them as criminals, rapists and a problem to our economy,” Msgr. Banuelas said. “It’s just the opposite.”
Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America and author of The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.