EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - As many as 200,000 Catholics are expected to cross four bridges from El Paso, Texas into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Wednesday to see Pope Francis in a massive pilgrimage likely to choke roads and immigration offices, U.S. officials said.
The visit to the northern Mexican city has been a huge draw in neighboring El Paso, where school districts, city government offices and businesses plan to shut ahead of what many in the city with a large Hispanic and Catholic population view as a once in a lifetime chance to see the leader of the Catholic Church.
Local estimates put the number due to cross the border at 150,000 to 200,000.
On an average weekday, 30,000 vehicles and 20,000 pedestrians cross through the El Paso ports of entry, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The federal law enforcement agency said those numbers should at least triple as crowds gather to greet the pope during his motorcade along the streets or attend the Mass at “El Punto,” a large field near Benito Juarez Stadium.
Extra border patrol agents and security measures are in place to keep up checks in El Paso and other parts of the border, he added.
A day ahead of the visit, the patrons at Lucy’s Cafe near the border were buzzing about “El Papa.” “We’ll wave ‘hola Papa’ while we work,” said cook Elva Ortiz.
Businessman Stan Okes wants to avoid the papal frenzy sweeping El Paso. “I may get out of town,” Okes said. “I can watch him on TV anywhere.”
The pope is traveling to crime-plagued Ciudad Juarez on the last stop of his six-day tour of Mexico. He will pray for migrants and victims of violence at a Mass a few hundred feet from the border. A platform built next to the border fence will allow Pope Francis to address El Pasoans watching from the United States.
The Catholic Diocese in El Paso said it gave an estimated 10,000 tickets for free to parishioners for the Papal Mass. On some Internet sites, those tickets were selling at more than $150.
For those who could not score a ticket for the Mass, the El Paso Diocese created a “Two Nations, One Faith” viewing party at the Sun Bowl Stadium, with a capacity of 50,000 people.
Through a two-way live stream broadcast, the Argentine pontiff can view the thousands of attendees and issue a formal blessing.
Reporting by Lisa Maria Garza; Editing Jon Herskovitz and Cynthia Osterman