NOGALES, Ariz. — It had been years since Maria Miranda of Tucson attended Catholic Mass with her son Jorge Lopez.
On Tuesday, they finally did. But they were separated by the U.S.-Mexico border fence in southern Arizona.
"I'm just a couple of bars, a couple steps away from her," the 35-year-old said he told himself. "There's a fence, but it's the same ground."
At one point, Lopez even forgot that he was on the Mexican side. He forgot about how immigration officials, he says, denied him an extension on his green card. He even forgot about how his illegal status finally caught up with him at work three years ago and he was deported.
Lopez was one of about 300 people who gathered at the border fence in Nogales to attend a transnational Mass led by Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston and bishops from across the West and Southwest, including Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle; Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson; Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso; and Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M.
The Mass to celebrate the lives of those who have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is an attempt by the Catholic Church to call on President Obama to use his executive powers to limit deportations of people who are in the country illegally.
Obama has come under fire from immigrant rights activists who have nicknamed him the "deporter in chief" in reference to the high volume of deportations under his administration, although federal statistics now show that expulsions of people who are settled and working in the U.S. have fallen steadily since his first year in office, and are down more than 40% since 2009.
The move by the bishops also comes at a time when an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy is at a standstill in Congress, despite thousands of people crossing the border into the U.S. only to die trying to get through Arizona's brutal Sonoran desert.
The dramatic backdrop for Tuesday's outdoor Mass was the imposing border fence, which became the center of attention when O'Malley and the other bishops gave Communion to people gathered on the Mexican side, as they reached through the gaps in the barrier's steel slats.
In the last few years, the Catholic Church has become increasingly vocal about immigrant rights — preaching from the pulpit about immigration reform as an "ethical and moral imperative."
Late last month, Elizondo, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, wrote to Department of Homeland Security officials asking them to limit deportations.
O'Malley, who took a weeklong tour of the southern Arizona border with several bishops from the Southwest, said he was inspired and emboldened by Pope Francis, who visited Lampedusa, Italy, last year to pray for people who died trying to migrate to Europe by boat.
During Tuesday's bilingual Mass, O'Malley and the bishops laid a wreath at the border wall in Nogales and called for Catholics to remember those who had died.
"We know the border is lined with unmarked graves," O'Malley said. "They call them illegal aliens. We are here to say they are not forgotten. They are our neighbors. Our brothers. Our sisters.… You cannot love God without loving your neighbor."
There have been other Masses on the U.S.-Mexico border, but this is the first that drew O'Malley and members of the bishops' committee on migration in addition to the border bishops.
The Catholic Church is one of many religious organizations that have taken a more aggressive stance on immigration reform. Protestant evangelicals, Jewish leaders and some Mormons have also called for an immigration overhaul, framing such action as a moral issue.
However, there still may be a disconnect from the pulpit to the flock, some experts suggest. For instance, a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that only 7% of U.S. adults said their religious beliefs were the biggest influence on their thinking regarding immigration. It was far more common for people to cite their personal experience, education or what they have seen or read in the media as the most important influence.
When asked about Catholic parishioners' possible disengagement on immigration, O'Malley said that was why the religious leaders were doing such things as holding Mass along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The bishops are here to call attention to this ethical problem," said O'Malley, who added that immigration reform was "being held hostage" by politicians.
On Tuesday, the border fence towered above the scene, casting a shadow on those attending Mass on the U.S. side. Franklin Alexander Ordoñez, 28, from Honduras, who described himself as a Catholic, clung to the fence on the Mexican side.
"This makes me very happy. It's a great help for us," he said. Ordoñez, who said he had been living in a migrant shelter this week until he could make an illegal crossing, said the Mass would give him the strength to move forward in his journey and flee the violence in his home country.
A few steps away, Lopez spoke with his mother, Miranda, through the fence. Miranda, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen last month, said she was hopeful that she would be able to bring her son back to Tucson soon.
Lopez, who came to the U.S. legally when he was 6, said he had never heard a Mass of this kind.
"It makes me feel like I'm still part of the U.S.," he told his mother through the fence. "I'm not Mexican. I feel like an American citizen."