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November 19, 2019, Chicago – Sister Xiomara Méndez-Hernández, OP, was one of more than 34,000 people to become United States citizens in mid-September during 316 Naturalization Ceremonies nationwide in celebration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. She participated in the Naturalization Ceremony at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Field Office in Chicago.
“People were in tears,” Sister Xiomara recalled. “I saw a lot of gratefulness and a lot of accomplishment. For me, it was a commitment.”
Sister Xiomara met the Adrian Dominican Sisters in her home country, the Dominican Republic, and was an Adrian Dominican Associate for three years before she entered the Congregation in 2008. At that time, she had her own fashion design business. She now ministers as a chaplain at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois.
Deciding to become a U.S. citizen was a “discernment,” Sister Xiomara said. She had been a resident of the United States for seven years – that was two years beyond her eligibility for citizenship. “For some reason I was comfortable being a resident.”
“Not many people have the blessing and privilege of going to the next step” of citizenship, Sister Xiomara said. “It was a long process,” Sister Xiomara recalled. “The Congregation had to send a letter saying I’m part of the Congregation and a resident in good faith ... and also proof of work, that I was working full-time and was an asset to this country.”
Sister Xiomara had her fingerprints and picture taken in January and was given information on the test she would take in August. “I had to memorize 100 questions – a lot of history of the United States.” She studied for the test while driving, with the help of a CD and an app. “I could recite every answer,” she said. She received word right after taking the test that she had passed and waited to learn the date of the Naturalization Ceremony.
Sister Xiomara recalled the kindness she received from immigration officials during the process of becoming a citizen. “They greeted me with so much dignity and respect,” she said. “It was a very good experience.”
Being a citizen makes it easier for her to travel overseas, Sister Xiomara said. Before, she had to apply for a special visa every time she traveled to Europe. “If you are a North American citizen, you don’t need a visa for so many places,” she added.
But Sister Xiomara sees an even greater advantage to being a U.S. citizen. “Being a citizen gives me a chance to have a full voice in this country.” She recalled being hesitant to speak out as a resident. “Now I have a voice for the voiceless who don’t have a pathway to citizenship,” she said. “I’m praying so hard and consistently so the [immigrants] don’t have to be afraid any more. This is my hope and my dream.”
“I feel a part of all of you – all of my Sisters who are native citizens,” Sister Xiomara added. “We are united for justice, for peace, and for reverence of life. I see more power to do this now as a citizen.”
October 12, 2018, Adrian, Michigan – Before an audience of Sisters, Co-workers, and local concerned residents, Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, described proposed changes in U.S. immigration policy that could make the process of becoming a U.S. citizen or receiving legal status in the United States much more difficult. She spoke in the Rose Room of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse.
Sister Attracta – an immigration attorney and Director of the Congregation’s Immigration Assistance Office – spelled out the implications for those applying for visas or citizenship if the proposed changes go into effect. The proposal would make it harder for immigrants to apply for legal status if they receive any public benefits they or family members might need.
At issue is a proposed change by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that would consider people applying for citizenship or legal status as “public charges” if they receive “any use” of certain federal aid programs “at any time in the future.” Applicants who are seen as “public charges” can be denied a visa or citizenship, Sister Attracta said.
“Public charge is legal language for a ‘ground of inadmissibility’ to the United States that has existed all along,” Sister Attracta explained. But the definitions of who is a “public charge” has changed over the years. She noted that when Ellis Island was established as a port of entry for immigrants in 1892, immigrants were not allowed to enter the country if they “had a communicable disease, had committed a crime of moral turpitude,” or didn’t have a relative or sponsor of any kind who could take care of the immigrant financially.
Beginning in 1999, public charges were defined as people who have become or are likely to become “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” through receipt of public cash assistance or long-term institutionalized care. Until now, Sister Attracta added, the government relied heavily on sponsors who signed an “affidavit of support,” a document signed by a financial supporter promising to support the applicant financially so that he or she would not depend on the government for assistance.
The proposed changes expand the number of federal assistance programs that prohibit people from gaining legal status. These programs include food stamps, housing vouchers for low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities; and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Sister Attracta noted the implications of this proposed rule change: it would “immediately create fear” in the hearts of immigrants, who would wonder if the rule applies to them, and could prevent them from applying for programs that family members might need. The Migrant Family Institute estimates that 200,000 couples annually applying for legal status who would be eligible under the current system could be denied under the proposed law.
The proposed change was formally published on October 10, opening a 60-day comment period before the change actually takes effect. Sister Attracta issued a call to action, to speak up on behalf of people who will be negatively impacted by the changes in rules. “All of us are encouraged to make a response” in support of those who are applying for legal status, she said.
Sister Attracta offered several points for those who want to speak up:
Materials with information on these points and more will be available on the Congregation’s website and at the Adrian Dominican Sisters Motherhouse by Wednesday, October 17.
Sister Attracta concluded her talk by encouraging the audience to reach out to their immigrant neighbors any way they can – praying for immigrants; submitting comments against the change; getting to know neighbors so they can reach out for help if they need it; driving immigrants to Detroit or other federal offices for any portion of the application process. “Any help you can give would be absolutely a gift,” she said.