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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.
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, and El Salvador 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:
“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.
December 6, 2018, McAllen, Texas – In a situation that many might assume is desperate and hopeless, five Adrian Dominican Sisters found hope, gratitude, and resilience among immigrants whom they volunteered to serve at hospitality centers in McAllen and El Paso, Texas.
The Sisters were responding to the call by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) to serve immigrants passing through the hospitality centers before joining their sponsoring family or friend. Sisters Patricia Erickson, OP, Mary Kastens, OP, and Nancy Murray, OP, served for 20 days at the McAllen Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, while Sisters Judith Benkert, OP, and Maurine Barzantni, OP, served at various times at Annunciation House, a hospitality center in El Paso, Texas.
From left: Sisters Maurine, Judith, Patricia, Mary, and Nancy
The two hospitality centers serve immigrants – mostly from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – released from detention centers and heading to the homes of family members or friends who are sponsoring them. The hospitality centers offer the immigrants food, clothing, showers, shelter, and a ride to the bus station or airport from which they will travel to their sponsored home in the United States. The immigrants – sometimes as many as 300 in one day – stay at the hospitality center until they have money to travel to their sponsored home.
Typically, the Sisters in McAllen worked from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., with a break for lunch, and spent the night in the Pilgrim House at the San Juan Shrine, about a 20-minute drive from the hospitality house. Sister Judith typically worked the 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. shift and stayed in a hotel.
The Adrian Dominican Sisters were among numerous other volunteers – other women religious, high school and college students, and concerned local residents – who took the time to offer the immigrants whatever services they needed.
“We didn’t have any specific duties per se,” said Sister Pat, a nurse practitioner. “Sometimes I would be in the coat and sweater room, helping people get the coats and sweaters they needed, or in the dining room, giving out tortillas and soup, or helping people in the clinic.”
At the same time, the Sisters and other volunteers served wherever and however they were needed. “There were no job descriptions or outlines of tasks to be done,” Sister Nancy said. “You can’t always analyze but you have to get things done. You have to set the table before you sort the clothes, and in between other tasks when you could get the towels washed.”
Sister Judith said a particular challenge for her was encouraging the sponsors – who often needed help making airplane reservations for the incoming immigrants – to seek help from a local friend or family member. Many had never used the Internet or made reservations and were not fluent in English, she said.
The Sisters were impressed by the patient and grateful attitude of the immigrants. “They always came with shoes that didn’t have laces,” Sister Judith said. “Laces and belts were taken away from them,” out of fear on the part of the detention center personnel that the immigrants would “do something drastic” with them.
“The highlights for me were the people who came through,” Sister Mary said. “They were very patient, gracious, grateful for anything you would do for them. It was special to see the fathers who came through with their children and how patient they were with their children – and how concerned.” Because all of the immigrants who came to the hospitality centers had a sponsor, they were filled with hope, she added. Those who had no one to sponsor them were often deported.
In spite of busy days and exhaustion, the Sisters learned much from their experiences with the immigrants. “I would put this as probably one of the greatest religious experiences of my life,” Sister Mary said. “My whole life has revolved around upper-middle class existence. … Here were people with one bag that held all their belongings. There was such a beauty from these people.”
Sister Judith said she learns from people in situations such as immigration or jail. “What matters in life is being together and having only what you need,” she said. “I’m always learning how to simplify my life, accept things that are important, and let go of other things that don’t matter.”
The Sisters also have suggestions for anyone who might consider volunteering at the hospitality centers. “It’s a great experience,” Sister Pat said. “Go without any expectations and be open to whatever comes your way. … You’re just there to be with people and to do whatever you can to help.”