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March 6, 2023, Lansing, Michigan – About 20 Adrian Dominican Sisters and friends joined a delegation of more than 140 Michigan advocates, lobbying their legislators at the Michigan State Capitol for the passage of a bill that would again permit immigrants – regardless of documentation – the opportunity to apply for a driver’s license. For years, Michigan had such a law, but it was rescinded in 2008. The 2023 bill to reinstate that practice is expected to be introduced in the coming weeks.
Drive Safe Advocacy Day was organized and sponsored by Strangers No Longer (SNL), a network of Circles of Support in Catholic parishes, congregations, schools, and immigrant communities to support immigrants, advocate for a comprehensive and humane immigration policy, and educate the public.
The Advocacy Day involved scheduled, 20-minute meetings of the advocates with their legislators. In all, 27 state representatives and 18 state senators met with their constituents to discuss the issue of allowing immigrants to have a driver’s license. Advocates came from around the state, from organizations such as Catholic and Protestant parishes; Catholic schools; immigration advocacy organizations; and congregations of women religious. In addition, participants met at the end of the day to share their experiences.
Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, an immigration attorney and Director of the Adrian Dominican Sisters Immigration Assistance Office, spoke in an interview before the event of the hardship of not having a driver’s license places on undocumented immigrants. “Especially in rural Michigan, there is no way for people to get around to any place – to go any place,” without a driver’s license, she said. “People are forced to drive without a license” in order to get to work or take their children to school, daily risking arrest and even deportation if they are stopped – and risking the safety of others who share the road with them, she said.
“In the past, there were no questions asked about immigration status” when an immigrant applied for a driver’s license, Sister Attracta explained. “You need a form of ID.” But if immigrants are not permitted to get a driver’s license, they are also not permitted even a state ID. Having some state identification “gives them some security when they go to pick up a prescription or at other times when they need to be identified.”
Sister Attracta cited incidents in which immigrants working with the courts for their immigration status had to pay people to drive them to go to court, to visit her office, or to take their children to school. “This is so unfair and unjust because if they had a driver’s license, they would at least have that much security – and it would save them a lot of money,” she said. “For many of them, it’s almost impossible. Many lose their jobs because they can’t get back and forth to work.”
In its suggested script for the meetings, SNL offered a similar rationale for the bill. “Most of us take for granted life’s routine tasks, such as driving to work, going to a doctor’s appointment, taking a child to school, going to church, or picking up groceries. All of these situations require a driver’s license.” In the script, SNL also emphasized that the bill would make provisions to ensure that immigrants who are not U.S. citizens would not receive voter registration – a concern of many who oppose the suggested law.
Most members of the Adrian Dominican contingent met with State Representative Dale Zorn (R-Onsted), each in turn speaking of personal experiences with immigrants and offering her own reasons for backing the legislation. A group of five Adrian Dominican Sisters brought forward the same case to State Senator Joseph Bellino (R-Monroe). In addition, the Adrian Dominican contingent was invited to a short, impromptu meeting with Senator Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), Senate Majority Leader, who encouraged them in their efforts to lobby for the legislation.
State Rep. Dale Zorn discusses the proposal for a bill to permit all immigrants – regardless of status – to apply for a driver’s license.
“I found Dale Zorn to be a listening person,” said Sister Carleen Maly, OP. “I think we were mutually engaged because of his interest in clarifying what the need was.” As Director of the Adrian Rea Literacy Center, Sister Carleen is a long-time advocate for immigrants. “My personal reasons are our learners who are immigrants, primarily from Mexico.” She said 70% of the literacy center’s learners come from Mexico and another 20% from other Spanish-speaking countries. “For me, it’s personal from hearing their stories,” she said.
Sister Virginia “Ginny” King, OP, an Adrian Dominican Sister who lives in Warren, Michigan, met with her State Representative, Lori Stone (D-Warren). “She was so supportive,” Sister Ginny said. “She has supported previous times [a similar bill] has been introduced, but it’s never made it through.”
Sister Ginny noted the complications that arise for immigrants who are not permitted to get a driver’s license. “If you get into an accident, you lose everything if you are driving illegally,” she said. Immigrants need to have the legal ability to drive to work and to other daily activities, she said, adding the importance of treating all people with dignity. “We’re a country of immigrants,” Sister Ginny said. “We have to be welcoming.”
Sister Helene Kloss, OP, who recently moved to Adrian from Florida said the experience “was an eye-opener for me. I learned a lot listening to the questions and the experiences … of the other Sisters.” She said the idea of not having access to a driver’s license for the daily activities of life – taking children to school, going to a hospital, going to work – was new to her. Sister Helene said she was grateful for the opportunity to “show support for those who don’t have much, and they need to be able to drive.”
Sister Patricia McDonald, OP, was among the Sisters meeting with Rep. Zorn. “I got energy from talking to other people.” She added the participants in the meeting with Rep. Zorn were “engaging and alive about what is still to be done.” She was also impressed by the staff members and secretaries of the legislators, who were “very engaging and really seemed to be on top of why we were there – and thanked us for coming.” She was also impressed by the students who attended.
Sister Beverly Stark, OP, said she was impressed by a group of young immigrant students she’d seen, and the impact that they had on the legislator they met with. She said that her own participation in the lobby day was an important aspect of her own efforts at justice and peace. “I’ve had a long commitment to social justice, and I could see that this was an issue that demanded social justice and was willing to do what I could to help bring it about.”
Sister Patricia added her own commitment to advocating for the immigrants and for anybody who doesn’t have a voice. “We are speaking for the people to bring about justice,” she said. “I thought it was a solid use of our time and I think we made an impact as an organization.”
Feature photo at top: Members of the Adrian Dominican contingent head into the Michigan State Capitol for the Immigration Advocacy Day.
January 18, 2023, El Paso, Texas – From late November to mid-December – during the time that many people consider to be the “holiday season” – three Adrian Dominican Sisters were among other Catholic Sisters and lay volunteers who served in ministry to asylum seekers crossing into the U.S. at the Texas-Mexico border.
The Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Catherine of Siena Mission Chapter, encompassing Sisters and Associates predominantly outside of Adrian, Michigan, invited Sisters to serve for at least a week at the border. Three Sisters served at St. Ignatius Parish in El Paso, Texas, which had set up its parish hall and school – now closed – as a clearing house for immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. The immigrants are bused to the center by Border Patrol personnel.
Sister Mary Soher, OP, explained that St. Ignatius began receiving refugees about eight months ago, originally only on Mondays – until the number of refugees coming to El Paso increased in June and July. “They went from once a week to three times a week,” she said. The parish’s philosophy is to turn no one away.
Typically, the parish accepts immigrants coming from detention on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays; offers them clothing, food, and whatever else they might need; helps them to make travel arrangements – usually by plane or bus – to the home of their sponsors; and provides transportation to the airport or bus station.
“The object of St. Ignatius and the immigrants they [welcome] is to turn them over as quickly as possible and get them to their destination” where they can stay until their court date for seeking asylum, explained Sister Janet Stankowski, OP. While the court date is originally set in El Paso, where they were received, most asylum seekers can arrange to go to a court that’s near where they will be staying.
Sister Janet served at St. Ignatius during Thanksgiving week – a unique experience because of the holiday. “We had a huge load of people – 180 on Monday and 150 on Tuesday – and by Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, maybe there were 25 to 30 who weren’t able to move on,” she said. Many stayed for two or three days waiting for transportation.
Sister Janet recalled giving the remaining immigrants a special experience of U.S. Thanksgiving: Mass in Spanish and then a walk to nearby Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso, which offered Thanksgiving meals to about 750 people who are homeless and immigrants. She spent Friday working with an immigrant family to wash 10 loads of sheets and towels and transporting people to the airport or bus stations.
Sister Nancy Jurecki, OP, served at St. Ignatius December 4-10, 2022, finding it to be a “really positive experience.” She was particularly surprised by the many places that the immigrants came from: Central America, South America, Turkey, and Russia.
“The center itself is like a day center and a couple of buses come in, and it’s a matter of feeding the people and connecting them to wherever it is that they’re going,” Sister Nancy explained. “The dignity that they give people is heart-warming. It’s a welcome center in the truest sense of the word.”
She spent the mornings of the immigrants’ arrival in food preparation, offering them a hot meal, and afternoons transporting them to the airport or bus station. On days when the immigrants don’t arrive, she said, volunteers sorted donations of clothing.
Sister Nancy noted the fast pace of volunteer work at St. Ignatius. “You don’t get to know a lot of people on a really personal level because it’s so fast, but there are opportunities.” Volunteers who know Spanish have multiple opportunities to get to know the people, however. “They can listen to the stories and understand them.”
Sister Mary, who served December 11-20, 2022, was especially surprised at the state of the immigrants who arrived at St. Ignatius. They would get off the bus wearing shoes with no shoelaces, sweatpants, and T-shirts. “That was every person, regardless of their age,” she explained. “You knew automatically that they were refugees if that’s all the clothing they had.”
St. Ignatius offered them clothing – including heavier shirts and jackets to people going to colder states and sweaters for those staying in warmer climates, Sister Mary explained. Immigrants who had money were encouraged to go to one of the hotels working with St. Ignatius, where they could take a shower.
Sister Mary noted a particular challenge for immigrants seeking transportation during the Christmas season: the cost. “The price of tickets kept going up, up, up,” she said. “Somebody wanted a plane to New Jersey. One ticket was $500.” She added that planes and buses were both full during the Christmas season. But, she added, the immigrants “made it this far and the amazing thing was people’s ability to get where they were going.”
All three Sisters were impressed and inspired by the parishioners of St. Ignatius and the other volunteers – and moved by the plight of the immigrants and their strength, courage, and resiliency.
“What I learned is that people came with nothing,” Sister Janet said. “They got off those buses with a little Ziploc bag with their passport, money, and paperwork – that’s it.” Still, she said, they did bring their families and their faith, as well as a “determination that they could survive and maybe even thrive.”
Sister Mary saw predominantly young immigrants – often young families with small children. She was amazed at the ability of the parents to come to the United States with their young children and navigate the system. “I didn’t ask a lot of questions,” she said. “You just want to make them feel welcome and safe for whatever they want to go to next.”
Sister Janet added: “I admired tremendously the priest at St. Ignatius, who lived the Gospel, lived the words of Pope Francis. He exemplified what Pope Francis said about welcoming the immigrants. He was welcoming the stranger and trying to integrate them into new life. He set the pace, but the volunteers who worked tirelessly, they put me to shame.”
St. Ignatius is located in the poorest diocese of the whole state of Texas, Sister Nancy said, adding that parishioners have taken on the projects themselves. “It costs about $5,000 a month to feed the people.” But, she added, the program is also supported by Bishop Mark J. Seitz. “He said we need to open people’s eyes to the fact that this is not a criminal activity,” she said. “This is very legal and it’s the kind thing to do – it’s really Gospel driven.”
Sister Nancy encouraged others who have the opportunity to get involved in this ministry. But, she added, “there’s no way to prepare for it. It’s just a matter of an open mind and an open heart. It’s clearly a broadening experience. You’re not the same [afterwards].”
Feature photo: Immigrants leave a Border Patrol bus and line up for services at St. Ignatius Church in El Paso, Texas.