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Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, JD, Encourages Action on Behalf of Immigrants and Dreamers

November 1, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – While the United States is known as a nation of immigrants, recent federal policies have made it much more difficult for today’s immigrants to obtain permanent resident status, for people from Central America to be granted asylum, and for “Dreamers” who may have only known life in the United States to be safe from deportation.

That was the gist of a presentation October 29, 2019, by immigration attorney Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, JD, Director of the Adrian Dominican Sisters Immigration Assistance Office. Sister Attracta provided background on a number of specific immigration policies, described their current status, and in many cases suggested actions that the public can take to bring about just immigration policies.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was a policy built on “prosecutorial discretion,” delaying the deportation of young adults – known as “Dreamers” – who had come into the United States at a very young age with parents who did not have the proper immigration papers, Sister Attracta said. Since 2012, when the DACA act was passed, she said, about 800,000 young adults were granted temporarily relief from the threat of being deported. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of DACA on September 5, 2017.“We’re talking about people – many of whom are very wonderful professional people,” Sister Attracta said. “They have gone to school, held down two jobs, and worked really hard. Many of our DACA people are doctors and physician’s assistants, working where most U.S.-born professionals would not dream of going to work.” Many of the Dreamers have only known life in the United States and could face deportation to their parents’ country of origin, which would be foreign to them. 

“The fate of DACA will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court,” beginning with arguments on November 12, 2019, Sister Attracta said. “Between now and November 12 we need to pray very, very genuinely from our hearts to open the hearts of the Supreme Court justices so they do what Jesus would do – look at these people as human beings who need to be treated with respect.”

Sister Attracta announced a novena – developed by Sister Kathleen Nolan, OP, Director of the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation – that begins on Sunday, November 3, and concludes on Monday, November 11. She also encouraged people who live in the Adrian area to attend a prayer service for Dreamers at 7:00 p.m. Sunday, November 10, 2019, at the St. Joseph campus of Holy Family Parish, 415 Ormsby Street, Adrian.

Asylum

Sister Attracta noted that asylum seekers – especially those from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua – have been in the news because of changes in the U.S. administration’s asylum policy and its treatment of those who have come to the U.S. border without formal papers.

Asylum is defined by international law as pertaining to “people fleeing persecution in their home country where the government will not or cannot protect them from harm,” Sister Attracta said. Those seeking asylum “must show past persecution or fear of future persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group,” she said.

The U.S. government no longer allows people seeking asylum to wait in the United States for their court hearing, Sister Attracta said. Instead, they must return to Mexico or apply at a “safe” country closest to their home country. But, Sister Attracta said, while the United States considers Mexico and the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua to be safe, they actually are not. 

It has been the treatment of families seeking asylum that has garnered the most attention, Sister Attracta said. Under the U.S. government’s zero tolerance policy, “all adults crossing the U.S. without proper documentation will be criminally prosecuted,” she said. In the past, such offenses were considered civil rather than criminal violations.

In June 2018, the U.S. policy of separating families at the border and holding children as young as less than a year old in confinement “shocked the world with its cruelty,” Sister Attracta said, adding that the public later learned that this policy had already been in practice a year before it became known. Although the courts ordered that this practice be stopped, many of the children have not yet been reunited with their families, Sister Attracta noted

Sister Attracta encouraged action to bring about immigration reform in the United States:

  • Contact your U.S. representative and senator, urging legislation that would ensure that asylum seekers can stay in the United States to await their court hearing.

  • Speak to your legislators on the need to retain the Flores Settlement, which requires that children be kept in as humane a condition as possible and that their time of incarceration be limited.

“Pope Francis urged us to embrace what he terms a ‘culture of encounter,’ face-to-face encounter with others, which challenges us with their pain, their pleas, and their joy,” Sister Attracta said. “The Christian way of life is to pray, be available, and passionately act for the common good. If we respond as Pope Francis calls us, we must look at the root cause of our immigration problem. We must work together to fix our very broken immigration laws.”

Watch Sister Attracta’s complete presentation in the video below.


Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD, Reflects on Experience at Border

By Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD

September 24, 2019, Laredo, Texas – Responding to an invitation from Catholic Charities, I went to Laredo, Texas, for two weeks in August to volunteer at the migrant shelter, La Frontera. I was told ahead of time that the situation was very “fluid” as our government policy was constantly changing, and indeed, that was the case.

Last May, the shelter was receiving about 250 migrants on a daily basis, but toward the end of July, migrants were only being released from detention on the weekends when government buses were not available to transport them back to Mexico to await their court hearings scheduled for one month later. 

The weekend I arrived, only 60 migrants were released from the detention center after spending four days there in the most deplorable of conditions. This was after traveling for about a month from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with only the clothes on their backs and the name and address of a family member or other contact in the United States.

At the shelter, the migrants are provided with clean clothing, a shower, food, and lodging. Staff at the shelter helped our guests contact their relatives, arrange for bus tickets to their final destination, and transport to the bus station. 

A corridor in La Frontera Shelter

When migrants arrive at the shelter, they are very apprehensive and frightened about what will happen to them next, but they soon realize they are safe. Staff members report that when the women are allowed to go to the clothing room and spend time picking out clothes for themselves and their children, they start to feel that they are in control of their situation, being allowed finally to make decisions in a non-threatening environment. For us it seems like a small thing, but for them, to be able to choose a blue T-shirt instead of a red one is a small sign of returning to a normal environment.

About half of our guests required some medical attention, which was provided by Kelly Garcia, a volunteer pediatric nurse practitioner from Minnesota, and myself. We had a very small clinic space to work in, but we made do with what we had. Luckily for us, Kristan Schlichte arrived from Catholic Charities in Alexandria, Virginia, and responded to our wish list for basic supplies, such as an ice chest, a pill cutter, and a pill sorter. The lack of a sink with running water for hand washing was a challenge, but before my departure, plans were being made to transfer the clinic to a room in the shelter that was equipped with a sink, cupboards, and much more space.

It was heart-breaking to hear the stories that our guests told of the hardships they had to endure to travel so far, seeking freedom at last from violence in their native countries. Small children complained of headaches, stomach aches, and back pain, describing how they were given food they could not eat, not being able to take a shower or brush their teeth, and sleeping in cold rooms on a concrete floor while in the detention center.

Some of the adults had their medications taken away from them while they were in detention. We found that many had extremely high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar levels.

One man with a seizure disorder had his medicines confiscated. On the fourth day without his medications, he had a seizure and was sent to the hospital emergency room for treatment. He was sent the next day to our facility. He was so weak when he came to our clinic that staff members helped him to lie on the floor, as he did not have the strength to stand. He was refusing food for a few days, saying he had no appetite.

We got his proper medication and put him in an observation bed upstairs in the facility, while providing him with gentle hydration and nutrition. His 14-year-old daughter looked on. His condition improved after four days and he was well enough to travel by bus to be reunited with his wife in North Carolina. We provided him with a month’s supply of his medication and the phone number of a clinic he could call when he reached his destination so that he could continue to receive medical care.

Lucas and his daughter with Kelly Garcia, nurse practitioner, second from left, and Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD.

Before he left he thanked us profusely and asked to have a picture taken with us so that he could show his wife the people who helped him on his journey. He told us he was sure he would have died if we hadn’t been there to assist him when he was so ill. Lucas and his daughter each gave us a huge abrazo (hug) and when they left, we all had tears in our eyes. We cannot make up for their ill treatment along the way, but we can offer them a new sign of hope, bringing to life the mission of Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4:18: “announcing good news to the poor, proclaiming that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free.”

For the past few weeks, the hallways have remained empty and the beds ready for new guests. Stories abound of migrants being returned to the streets in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, only to become victims of street gangs and drug cartels who take advantage of those who are defenseless and homeless. Many are being kidnapped and held against their will in “private” shelters, where they are held for ransom or human trafficking.

More than 20,000 asylum seekers have been sent back across the border to await their court hearings since the “Remain in Mexico” policy was announced. Our own State Department has posted a travel advisory about Nuevo Laredo, citing the enhanced risks of murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault. 

It was considered an emergency situation when the shelter was overflowing with more than 200 guests per day. Now, with no one being released from detention, we face a new emergency and need to respond to it.

 

Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD, and Kelly Garcia, a nurse practitioner, spent much of their volunteer time serving in the medical clinic at La Frontera Shelter in Laredo, Texas.


 

 

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