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 (Feb 17) to see Pope Francis in a massive pilgrimage likely to choke roads and immigration offices, US 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 US 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.
"We really don't know what's coming our way until everybody gets here," said agency spokesman Ruben Jauregui.
Extra border patrol agents and security measures are in place to ensure no individuals or groups use the papal visit as a distraction to bypass the inspection process at border ports and interior checkpoints, he added.
The pope is traveling to crime-plagued Ciudad Juarez on the last stop of his six-day tour of Mexico, where 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 US$150 (S$211).
For those who could not score a ticket or take time off work 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 will be able to view the thousands of attendees inside the stadium and issue a formal blessing.
Francis is travelling to some of the poorest and most violent corners of Mexico on his trip and visited the country's gang-infested heartland on Tuesday.