- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2016

A second visit to the U.S. isn’t part of Pope Francis‘ itinerary during his trip Wednesday to the Mexican border town of Juarez, but that doesn’t mean U.S. law enforcement agencies along the Texas border aren’t prepared for an impromptu visit.

Given the pope’s affinity for unscripted remarks and spontaneous detours during his trips, border agents and local police based in El Paso have staffed up and officials say they are prepared just in case the pontiff opts to cross the border to visit with those expected to gather on the U.S. side.

“We’ll try to accommodate,” said Carlos Diaz, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in the case Pope Francis wants to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. “We will be ready for any event.”

Both local and border officials say they have not been told either way whether the pontiff might cross, but many doubt he will given the logistical challenges such a spur of the moment decision would create.

“I know the pope can be unpredictable at times, so we prepared for it,” said El Paso Police Department spokesman Sgt. Robert Gomez. “As of now, we don’t anticipate it.”

Citing security concerns, agency spokesmen declined to say how many more officers and law enforcement officials are on duty in the area leading up to the pope’s visit to Juarez.

A decision by Francis to cross would be rooted in the pope’s desire to express solidarity with migrants who have traveled from Central America and Mexico into the U.S. Ahead of his first visit here in September, the pope said he would have liked to have entered the country through Mexico, but security challenges and the length of time the entire visit would have taken proved to be too great.

Whether he actually crosses the border or not, Francis’ visit to Mexico is meant to symbolically trace the route of migrants. The visit, which began Friday, started with a trip to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas and will end Wednesday following a cross-border Mass delivered within a few hundred feet of the border fence that separates Juarez and El Paso.

Upwards of 200,000 people are expected to attend on the Mexican side — leading U.S. customs officials to increase staffing in order to accommodate extra border-crossing traffic ahead of time.

“We always see an increase in this area for holidays, and we expect a larger influx than that,” said Mr. Diaz, adding that about 30,000 cars and 20,000 pedestrians cross through the El Paso ports of entry on an average day.

On the U.S. side, approximately 500 people selected and vetted through Catholic organizations or social services agencies will gather at the border fence as part of a private gathering organized by the Catholic Diocese of El Paso.

The El Paso Police Department has otherwise closed the area next to the border fence, including the Cesar Chavez Border Highway, to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Others on the U.S. side who want to see the Mass will be able to watch a live video feed of the event at El Paso’s Sun Bowl.

Many among the select group of individuals chosen to gather along the border fence during the Mass are immigrants themselves, some of whom fled their homes due to violence, or might have crossed as unaccompanied minors and still be in the country illegally.

“The people that will be there are the very people he will be celebrating this Mass for,” said Elizabeth O’Hara, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of El Paso.

A platform built next to the border fence will allow Pope Francis to walk up a ramp to address the crowd on the U.S. side from about 100 feet away.

Sgt. Gomez said El Paso police were only alerted to the plans to construct the ramp about a week ago, and that security plans have been altered numerous times as the pope’s itinerary and route has changed.

“We weren’t prepared for that until we saw it being built,” he said.

But given that U.S. security plans for the pope’s visit to Mexico have unfurled over only the last 90 days — as opposed to the more than a year of planning that went into security efforts for the pope’s trip to Washington, D.C, New York City, and Philadelphia — Sgt. Gomez said agencies are remaining flexible for whatever may come.

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