Global Sisters Report held a video roundtable discussion March 4 with seven sisters who are leaders on immigration issues. They were part of a larger group of sisters participating in a leadership forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Faith in Public Life and NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby, and in partnership with the Sisters of Mercy and the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
The sisters who took part in the roundtable:
• Bernadine Karge is a Sinsinawa Dominican sister and immigration attorney in Chicago. She volunteers in immigration clinics and is a frequent speaker on immigration reform.
• Tracy Kemme, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, ministers at the archdiocesan Catholic Social Action Office and is the Latino ministry coordinator at a parish with a growing Guatemalan population.
• Janet Kinney is a Sister of St. Joseph/Brentwood and serves on the congregation's justice committee. She advocates for immigration reform and serves as executive director of Providence House, a housing assistance nonprofit in New York.
• Andrea Koverman, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, currently ministers at the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati.
• Judy Morris is a justice promoter for the Dominican Sisters of Peace. She supervised her congregation's corporate stance on immigration reform and encourages active participation in rallies and prayer vigils for policy changes.
• Norma Pimentel is a sister with the Missionaries of Jesus and the executive director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley.
• Rose Weidenbenner is a Sister of Mercy in the South Central Community in McAllen, Texas, and a social worker with ARISE, an organization in the Rio Grande Valley that assists with personal and community development and services.
GSR: Donald Trump has been proposing to build a wall at the US-Mexico border, wants to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and has basically called Mexican immigrants criminals — yet he's leading in polls and in the primaries. Other Republican nominee hopefuls are also talking very tough on immigration. How can you as sisters help change the tenor of the immigration debate in this country?
Morris: I think we have to take every avenue, every opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless, whether that's letters to the editor, taking opportunities to speak in our parishes, our schools, civic groups. I am fond of quoting Catherine of Siena: who said 'Speak as if you had a million voices — it's silence that kills the world.'
Pimentel: I think we can make present the immigrants themselves, their faces, their stories, so that people can know they are not criminals, that they are people like you and I and that they deserve dignity and respect from all of us.
Kinney: The other thing that I think we do well is that we benefit from partnerships with a lot of other coalitions in the state, across this country. We have the capacity to build on those networks to build a momentum.
Weidenbenner: One other piece is to change the issue from a legal issue to really a faith and moral issue. It is our responsibility as Christians to welcome the stranger.
Karge: We have had an enforcement-only throughout the Obama administration, and we have had a wall for 10 years now. We need to look at the root causes of immigration — why are people coming? You do not leave your home, as the Russian poet says, unless your home is in the mouth of a snake. So we need to build a bridge, not a wall, and to look at our world situation. How do we as U.S. Americans participate in the 'push' factors, and how do we use our resources to welcome the people who live on the same planet as we do, as one family.
Kemme: We talked a lot about stories this week and one of the benefits of being a sister and being a part of this network is that we know people who are working on the ground with immigrants all across the country. A phrase that came to me yesterday is 'faces, not fences.' We know the faces of these people and we need to lift those up when we start talking about fences.
GSR: There appears to be a disconnect among many Catholics between Catholic social justice teaching on immigration and their views. What are your suggestions for addressing this disconnect? Can you share any approaches that you've tried?
Morris: People refer to Catholic social teaching as the church's best kept secret, and I question why. How can we bring Catholic social teaching in our classrooms, our parishes and take every opportunity to speak as we see it individually, as we see it corporately, to connect the two. But there is a great gap in the education among people in the pews regarding Catholic social teaching. I think we each have to creatively come up with ways of putting that out there as we do about learning scripture study.
Karge: Some of the basic principles of Catholic social teaching are number one, the right to migrate, but also the right not to have to migrate, to be able to stay in your own home. Another principle is the right for countries to make their own laws, but that must be done in the context of the human family, not only what serves our immediate country but what serves the universal common good, again, looking at it with a worldwide perspective in our globalized world and to see what is our obligation. At this point in history we've never figured out immigration laws that work. We have been at this for almost 200 years, and it changes like the wind in Chicago where I'm from. It's always a challenge. What are the needs? Look at the families we have now, where there U.S. citizen members, there are people with documents, there are undocumented people because they are 22 years old and fell out of the line that they've been standing in for 20 years. So it's like tuning up your car and putting on a new set of wheels and getting it forward to accomplish the job we need to do, to get everybody in the car, on the bus, whatever.
Kinney: Another thing I think we need to acknowledge is that we are a nation of immigrants and I think we tend to forget that. So how can we get people in touch with their own stories in their own families — that we are all immigrants and that, at one time, our families had an opportunity in this country and shouldn't everyone be allowed that same opportunity?
Weidenbenner: Our communities are immigrant communities too. They came from other places to serve the local immigrants that were coming to this country, so we are immigrant people also. I wanted to add that one of the programs that ARISE offers in south Texas is a border witness program. They bring a variety of people, groups of sisters, groups of students, college students on spring break to come down and experience the border personally, to see what it is, to see the wall, to meet people who have come across who are living in limbo like the other people have talked about without the laws that will help them to become citizens, and they want to become citizens, they want to add their gifts to this country. They are not taking away from this country. They will add to this country. Meeting people firsthand is really a good way to do that.
Pimentel: Having people come and see and experience what is happening, for actually them to see the moms, the children and be part of that reality, it transforms them and brings the Catholic social teaching to life and understand more vividly their responsibility to be part of helping others and that responsibility we have to help all people.
Kemme: Two things come to mind for me: one is the Golden Rule, and two, family values. Just thinking about if we ourselves were raising our children in these Central American countries, where violence is a fear every day, we can look at it from that perspective, what would we want other countries to do if we were in that position. We say that, as a Christian nation family values are important to us, and if we can decriminalize the issue and show the families at the center, that being for immigration reform is being for family values. That is a really important way to reframe the debate.
Morris: And share the stories of immigrants who have touched us. People are not so much moved by statistics — you can quote statistics — but [by] the real touching stories will be more convincing, especially stories around children who are coming, and most of those coming to the United States are children. I think we can also frame this as a pro-life issue — a seamless garment.
Koverman: I think we need to be as vocal about our perspective and our position around this issue as the opposite perspective is. They are very good at getting their message across, and it seems that the general public doesn't have a balanced source of information. So if we can do that, where we are putting the human side, the human face on the issue and calling people to look at the issue through their faith rather than through political rhetoric, I think that would go a long way in connecting people to the heart of the issue.
GSR: The immigration system is often described as 'broken.' What reforms would you like to see and which are the most pressing?
Pimentel: I would like to say that many of the families that come to the border, that we're seeing at the border, are families that go through a lot of suffering, and a lot of it should not happen if there was a better immigration process for them to come to this country and avoid all the criminalization and people taking advantage of them. So I would think a great present would be a better process for people to leave their country in a safer way.
Kemme: I think one of the most pressing issues is DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents]. There's a young man named Alfredo in Cincinnati who is a DREAMer and he lives in constant fear that he is going to come home from college and his father is not going to be there anymore. So really focusing on that issue as allowing the parents of children who are here to be able to stay here. Again, supporting keeping families together.
Koverman: Yes, and a legal way for them to be present in this country and to work without being vilified as a criminal; recognizing that they contribute to our economics in many, many ways and that we would be in a lot of trouble if all 11 million of them were really rounded up and taken out of the country — we depend on them. They are part of our community, part of our economic system, and yet we don't give them a way to do that legally. So, changing that so they can be present, even if they're just here to work.
Karge: Another thing that can be changed, is activating Congress to do their job. It's always been a question, 'Are immigration laws federal or are they local?', and at the moment they are federal with a lot of interference on the sidelines. However, Congress sets the number of people who can come to the United States — they can increase those numbers. You can buy a 1-gallon tank or a 10-gallon tank. Congress can do that. One of the examples of the broken immigration system was the 1986 amnesty law, where there were no derivatives which meant that if I applied for permanent resident status, I couldn't bring my spouse or my children. So mom or dad became a permanent resident and then they filed a petition and they would wait 10 to 15 years.
There's a family that I worked with in Chicago where the dad became a permanent resident because he was here the required time, and mom and the kids came over here. He filed a petition for them. They waited 15 years for that. Five years ago, the numbers became available, we were able to get them all to their immigration interviews, they got their green cards. The youngest child, the only girl in the family, went all through grade school, high school and is now in a STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] program at an East Coast university and wants to be a biomedical technician and she is now five years a permanent resident and is in process of becoming a citizen. So these are the people who stood in line and there are so many more of them. They can just open the door a little bit further and let these people get their papers right, where they've been waiting 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years, depending on where they're from.
Morris: The whole timeline is daunting, totally unrealistic and most people don't know that. I even question if our representatives and our senators know that. That is something that seems could be changed, and changed quickly. We also need to do some myth busting. There are so many myths surrounding immigrants: They don't pay taxes, high crime; many, many others. As long as they're not addressed consistently they're going to persist. So I think we really need to be occupying our time with dealing with the myths.
Koverman: One of the things that come to my mind is a lot of people say 'my parents or my grandparents were immigrants but they did it the right way, they did it the legal way, so why should these people not have to follow same rules,' not knowing that the rules are completely different, there isn't a way for them to do it legally anymore. And then talking about the student, why would we educate young people to that degree and then export them? It does not serve our own interests either. They are valuable members of our communities and part of our viable future.
Pimentel: I would also ask that it's important to define a refugee from an immigrant. I think that's not very clear and not up to date with what we are experiencing today with all the immigrants who are coming who are truly refugees and not considered refugees.
Karge: The United States is part of the international community in terms of the 1980 Refugee Act where there are international standards and due process procedures for people to follow, and with the current deterrent program of the administration where people are locked up in jail, women and children under the age of 18 are held in three family detention centers in Berks, Pennsylvania, in Dilley Texas, and Karnes, Texas, which are in violation of our American laws and international law and the access to counsel is the prime issue on that.
Pimentel: To that same thing, when an immigrant arrives, and is detained for the very first time at a processing center, the very first person they are apprehended and determines what their status is, is a border patrol agent that probably does not have any skills or anything to know how to respond to determine whether this person truly has the right to be here in this country, why they are fleeing from their country. So to address that is very important, to have a better presentation of who is the one who interviews that immigrant for the very first time.
Kemme: I think we need to continue to raise awareness about what's really going on in these countries where people are coming from. I was in Guatemala two summers ago when there was a large influx of women and children from Central America and one of the mothers I talked to, Maria, had just seen a son of hers whose classmate was killed in the plaza in their village that same week. So she was sharing with me that she understands why some of the mothers in her community were sending their children to America. So just to keep in mind that reality — if we can really soak that in, you can really see what that means for a mother. I think it changes our perspective.
Kinney: And also to acknowledge with that the number of immigrants who are here and really complementing the American workforce in so many industries. I don't think people see that, and I think that's really important to acknowledge.
GSR: Sr. Norma, you mentioned specifically about refugees. The Obama administration has taken the idea of family detention as a deterrent for Central American refugees, and there are advocates who say they should be treated as refugees. Let's explore this a little more deeply — there is violence in a lot of countries. Why treat them as special?
Pimentel: I don't know that we are necessarily treating them special; we're treating them with the human dignity that any person deserves to be treated. We should always take that into consideration when we treat anybody, how we make sure they have due process and that they have the right treatment. It's something that we should do to everyone.
Kemme: I also think it's an obvious Good Samaritan moment — they're here, they're our neighbors, they are present, so we have to look at them and decide how we're going to respond. They are not somewhere across the globe, they are here.
Karge: Our laws and our procedures allow them to tell their story to the immigration officials or to the immigration judge so they can obtain refugee status, that's really political asylum. The status of refugees are technically approved before leave their own country and that's a two to three year process. But what we're talking about is people who are seeking asylum. It's like your neighbor knocking on your door saying, 'My house is on fire, let me in' — well do you ask for their identification or do you welcome them in? How do we respond to this as human beings? In terms of the volume of people who are coming, we don't have to lock them up and pay $350 per day per person per day for women and children. Look at what we could do with that money in terms of human needs and resources.
Part of the immigration law is Temporary Protected Status. Most recently it happened for political reasons like people from Somalia, the Haitian earthquake, or a temporary disruption. So if the administration and the Congress would allow for temporary protected status for persons from the northern triangle [El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras], this would alleviate the whole family detention problem, get the people settled in legal status if not a permanent resident status and citizenship but they can live and work and provide for their families. When conditions change, they have the right to go home and have that opportunity to do so, they could also apply for asylum if they want to. But it would alleviate the current crunch because, going back to the earlier question about enforcement, with the administration's policy of enforcement-only, the administration has not put out the resources to get people to the administrative or the court process so there's a tremendous logjam in people bringing their cases to conclusion. Immigration court cases are three to five years out at this point.
Koverman: Another reason we really need to look at the whole situation is that American policies and politics have had a lot to do with the conditions that are pushing these people out of their countries. It's not a popular thing to look at or to talk about but we need to own our own responsibility, our own culpability in this situation that's been created. So we helped create this problem, we are responsible for helping find some solution.
Karge: Another thing people say is that, 'They're all coming here!' Au contraire. The countries surrounding the northern triangle — Mexico, Costa Rica — their asylum applications have increased more than a thousand-fold, and ours have only gone up 300 percent. The same with the Syrian refugees. The small neighboring countries to Iraq and Syria have taken in tens and hundreds of thousands of refugees, and we're saying we will take 10,000. How does that balance on the scale of life?
Morris: We want to be sort-of merciful [laughter].
GSR: Returning to the detention issue, specifically the women and children. Wondering about the move by the state of Texas and the private prison corporation to become licensed as child care providers? What do you think about that?
Pimentel: The conditions at the centers that they have for detention for the families are really, truly concentration camps, when you experience that and see the families and moms with their children, and the children depressed and not wanting to eat. It's really not a wise choice to have families in those conditions or even children, for that matter, when they're initially apprehended and put in those processing centers where they're stuck for a while — the conditions are terrible for those children. I think the United States should have a better option than that to respond for these families.
Karge: It is my understanding that the request for licensing for child care agencies have all been denied. Some of them are on appeal. The family detention center in Berks County, Pennsylvania has lost its license even as a detention facility but that's under appeal so there are still about 92 women and children detained there. So it's one big mess. The whole point of asking to become a child care facility was to keep the money in the pipeline so they can keep doing this. The capacity at Dilley is 2,400; Karnes upped its capacity from a 500-bed facility to 680, and last I heard there were still 380 women and children still detained at Karnes. Now remember there are other detention centers in every state and every county practically for men, women and unaccompanied minor, so we're talking about a very small portion. But the family detention is an abomination, truly.
Kemme: There was a woman named Irma who came from Dilley on her way to Cincinnati and she has a 2-year-old daughter and she described the room she stayed in as a freezer. She said if you can imagine women and children lying on mats all across the floor with a thin sheet over them, trying to sleep, her daughter crying. That was the experience she had at Dilley. It was far from a child care facility.
Weidenbenner: And why should corporations be lining their pockets on the backs of people who are poor?
Karge: The Corrections Corp. of America had posted their highest earnings last year on this. And Geo [Corp], which is the ankle monitoring program that the immigration service is pushing onto people as an alternative to detention, which again is a big moneymaker for the private prison companies and just as terrible a situation for the people who are subject to them.
Morris: It's considered a quick fix, but we don't know what does that bode for the future in terms of mental health, or mothers with children when we treat them in this inhumane way. We are setting the stage for future problems just by this one action.
Kinney: It goes back to what we said earlier when we spoke about the social justice teachings of the church and preserving the human dignity of all. And in fact this is the least human dignity you can give to someone.
Koverman: Not only is it not a quick fix — it's a money maker. People are strategically profiting off of this. These huge detention centers are out in the middle of nowhere for a good reason, because most people, if they saw the conditions and what these people are going through, would not support it tolerate it.
Pimentel: It also makes it more difficult to have legal representation and due process.
GSR: Do you want to speak more to the issue of legal representation and how that has affected the people applying for asylum?
Karge: Under the immigration laws, people are entitled to counsel, but unlike in the criminal context you are not entitled to counsel at government expense. If you can pay for an attorney or get a pro bono attorney, you can have a representative. Statistics have shown that people who are represented have about a 98% chance of prevailing on the merit, but because of the lack of access to counsel, and the lack of people trained in asylum law, many of these people are unrepresented .
A year ago this month, in March 2015, the CARA Pro Bono Project was started by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network , AILA [the American Immigration Lawyers Association], RAICES, which is a local non-governmental organization in San Antonio, Texas and the American Immigration Council. Thousands of volunteer attorneys have gone down to represent people; many other workers and students have volunteered to help them. This has been a wonderful, hopeful bringing the face of the people. CARA means face, and when we are face to face with these people, you see their suffering. In my 30 years of practice I never did an asylum case until I went to Dilley, and I said I don't need to go there, and I said Bernadine, you're retired, you go – and I said 'not me, Lord, get somebody else' — and once you're there and you put your mind to it and capture, it and I have never seen so much trauma in the lives of immigrants as I did in Dilley.
The 20-year-old young woman with a three-year-old daughter, the mom with two teenage sons who didn't speak Spanish. People who are very kind and who go through the interview and give me their package of cookies from lunch to say thank you, they are so grateful. Anybody who speaks Spanish, there is a website if you want to participate, go to Cara Pro Bono Project if you want to donate paperclips or paper or ink — it's all pro bono. ALILA and CLIN have raised funds. The community of workers down there is just tremendous and they're from all over the country. Law students are going down there, retired people, and active attorneys, and we go on our own dime, using our resources to help those who are in greatest need. Being in jail for three weeks was a real experience.
Kemme: In January when there were immigration raids in three of our southern states, these people were slated to be deported, but because of the CARA project representing some of them, looking at their cases, they found they had not been afforded due process and they were allowed to stay. So there's some hope there that when people get involved, we can change things.
Karge: Now that people are released from Dilley, there's a big move to get people through the pipeline and to get pro bono representation in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, wherever they may be as they move through the next three to five years. We are definitely going uphill but we can do it.
GSR: What about alternatives that exist to the policy of detention of women and children? There are programs run by sisters — they are generally cheaper than keeping people locked up in facilities. Can you tell us more about examples of these, what is being done to expand them, and second question, what efforts are being made to educate lawmakers that programs exist?
Kinney: Many of us have served immigrant women and children for many, many, many years. For instance, I can give an example of my congregation. We have a sponsored ministry called the Learning Connection, where we provide GED prep. Some of these immigrants need very basic literacy skills and we have seen thousands of women go through this program and become very productive in our local community. I know this is mirrored across the country in many religious congregations where we've been running programs like this for years. So certainly the more support, the more resources that can be put into those kinds of efforts we can do tremendous, tremendous things and they are already happening.
Karge: In Chicago there are houses of hospitality. The Marie Joseph House of Hospitality — one for men and one for women — founded by a group called the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants. Marie Joseph was a Haitian immigrant who was locked up by INS and went out and had nowhere to go and went to an abandoned building and died of exposure three days later. Upon the discovery of her body, an interfaith group gathered together and said what can we do for this situation? Once we got through the zoning and all that good stuff, they've been in operation for little less than two years.
One is for women and children, especially women with families. There's one family at the detention center — I was there last Saturday — where there's a teenage son, a girl in fifth grade, a four-year old and an eight month old baby — the baby was born while the mom was in Chicago. Another Somali woman delivered her baby four months ago, so to have pregnant women be able to be in more of a family setting is certainly on the plus side. The other house is in the suburbs and that is for men, and depending upon where they are in the process, they are able to work.
But underneath all of this, I want to say there is no need to detain them. We do not need family detention. That is the administration's deterrent. The government has the right to lock people up but not forever. And they can let people out on their own recognizance, meaning here's your paper, you need to present it to a judge in Chicago or Kansas City, wherever you're going to live with your cousin George, and follow up on that.
For decades, people have paid a bond to assure their return to court. And if people are serious about their claim, they'll show up and they'll tell their story to the judge. Bonds — right now the minimum is $1,500, but we have heard of cases up to $20,000 which is totally ridiculous with people who all they have is the shirt on their backs and all their money is gone. There's the ankle monitor situation, which is used in the criminal context but these people are not criminals. So bottom line: We don't need family detention.
Weidenbenner: I think the other thing that's important to know is that families that are on the border, and probably in other places besides the border, are willing to help people come across even at their own expense, their own expense financially but also their own expense legally because they might not have their papers either. But they're willing to bring people to their homes to stay with them instead of having them in detention centers, or as they come across without being caught by INS, they're willing to help because it's a justice issue, it's a moral issue, and it's about the dignity of the individual and the family. It's not about laws.
Karge: Going back to your question about educating legislators, before I came to Washington we had a Congressional breakfast in Chicago with the AILA Advocacy Committee and many of the staff people did not know the details of the conditions in Dilley, Texas, the ice box and the dog cages where they lock up mom in one cage and the child in another and the child is crying and the mother cannot console her child. And why? So they can say, 'Don't come because they're not nice when you get to the U.S. border?' And the people who got to the U.S. border have already survived coming across the Mexico southern border, which the American government has spent a lot of money to pay to keep people away from our border.
We are part of the problem here. Like in Illinois, we started selling Illinois corn to Mexican farmers 20 years ago under NAFTA, killing the culture of subsistence farming. So it's against the fabric of life, the economics and politics of international trade and everything else. It's not an easy fix. We need to work at it and look at it with glasses if you need glasses to get a clear vision of what the deal is and see how we can be brothers and sisters to each other.
Kemme: It is really important to be lifting our voices much as the opposition is lifting their voices and engaging the media well. There are a lot of programs of young people like the IJPC, [Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center], YES [Youth Educating Society], and United We Dream that are training young people to tell their stories, to lift them up because that is powerful to hear someone's personal story. In Cincinnati on March 12 , we're having a rally for hope to stop separating families. This is a rally that's been planned by various interfaith groups from different aspects of the issue to come together and remind us we need to keep working together on this issue. We can't give up.
Koverman: I think it's important to remember too that, the most recent polls show that most Americans are supporting immigration reform. It seems like the word is getting out, people are becoming aware of the complexities of this issue and the situations that the immigrants are in and what's pushing them into the country and that many of them are refugees and do need asylum. It seems like more and more the American people want to embrace the immigrants and to look at the policy certainly and find a livable solution. The gridlock is really frustrating for everyone.
GSR: The Supreme Court ruling is coming in June on the 2014 proposal by the Obama administration to expand DACA and create this new program DAPA, for parents. How important is this? It would allow about 5 million undocumented immigrants to stay and work legally. Can you fill us in on the details on how closely it being watched?
Weidenbrenner: It's being watched very closely. One of the things that is another moral question is the whole issue that if President Obama is not allowed to bring a Supreme Court justice nominee forward and have that person seated, whether that happens before DAPA is decided on or ruled on. The fact is that if they cannot have a full Supreme Court seated, it hurts the people who are waiting on the other side for those decisions. If it's a tie, then it goes back to the most recent court decision. This is urgent.
The whole immigration law is going to take a long time to get all that fixed but meeting the needs of the people at the border today is what's urgent. Our hope that is if DAPA gets passed, then we will be able to help those 5 million and then move forward in the process.
Kemme: Passing DAPA is of the utmost importance right now. If you look to the values of our faith it is just wrong to separate families or to keep families in the fear of separation. Some of the families that I serve in our Catholic parish in Cincinnati, the parents have told me, 'well, I hear about this DAPA thing — that might be my only hope to be legalized in this country.'
Karge: The legal issue underlying this is the power to take executive action, which almost every president has done since President Eisenhower. After amnesty, as I mentioned before, only like one adult in the family — everybody had to file their own petitions, so the spouse and the children were not allowed to be here. If they were already in the United States they could call for or apply for something called family unity, which was executive action. So again, that preserves family unity. They could stay together, the kids could go onto high school. They could get a Social Security card, they could work when they came of age, and then get in line when their number came up for the visa petition. The system is very onerous but we have always had the ameliorative effect of administrative action to preserve family unity.
GSR: What are you doing to educate young people in Catholic schools and universities about immigration issues?
Kinney: At our congregation and I'm sure across the board at all congregations, sisters have been having workshops on elementary school level, high school level, upper ed[ucation], workshops in adult education programs in parishes. I think we have an obligation and I think we do it well. Most congregations were based on being educators and this is something we all do quite well. I think it is happening and continuing to happen. I want to liken it to train the trainers. The young people that are becoming voices for the voiceless is very encouraging and we see them coming out to these rallies and to these meetings with us. I think that's how it will happen — one building block at a time.
Koverman: Some of these young people who have been in this country a long time, from an very early age and grown up here and educated here — their classmates don't want them to go, they consider themselves Americans. One young woman was in our YES program and she didn't even find out that she was not an American citizen until she was ready to apply for college. Her parents had kept it from her thinking that would keep her safe. She just thought that they were overprotective and had some weird rules about what they weren't allowed to talk about in their family, but had no idea that she was an undocumented immigrant.
The first time she tried to tell her story in front of an audience was at our motherhouse — it was kind of a practice session for her and she broke down in tears, and people had to stand on either side of her and physically hold her up and give her some strength to help her tell the story, because all her dreams were shattered. She's surrounded by her peers and friends who considered her a part of their class and as much of an American as they are; just the injustice of that kind of thing is heartbreaking and shameful. Why would we want to send someone like this out of our country?
Weidenbrenner: I have two examples of some of the youths from the ARISE community who are helping to make a difference for common good. Some of them are DACA, but other ones are actually citizens and their parents are hoping for the DAPA to be able to pass. Recently a young highschooler and a young staff who is a DACA, and an older staff member went to the United Nations to make a presentation with the religious of the Sacred Heart at their NGO to be able to talk about popular education. That is one of the ways education happens at ARISE. They have their skills themselves, we don't have all the answers to give to them, but they have their skills, let's continue to teach in that way.
The other group of students, all high schoolers, were in a leadership program this summer and came together around a strange odor in their community. There happens to be a wastewater treatment plant about a block and a half from where our offices are — and it's sewer — you smell it almost every day. The plant has been there for 60 years and starting to malfunction and the kids have taken it on. They have presented it to the EPA, they have presented to the Texas Quality Environmental Committee and they're making the presentation themselves. They call in every day there's an odor nuisance, and they're getting responses back from both the EPA and the similar organization in Texas to be able to make that change for their community. Ninety-five percent of the people who live in those communities are immigrants, so they're making a difference at a local level.
Kemme: I wanted to bring up an interesting aspect of education that's having to go on in our immigrant communities. Because of the raids that happened in January, there was a bit of fear rising in our communities, so a lot of us are doing know-your-rights training to help immigrants understand what their rights are if ICE should come to their door. The principal of our Catholic school called me and said 'Sister Tracy, what do I do if one of my students goes home and their parents aren't there? I'm reading about making a plan for deportation. Do I have to talk to my kindergartners about making a plan with their parents in case they're deported?' So schools are having to figure out how to serve their immigrant students the best way without scaring them, but figuring out how to educate them on that. Karge: In Chicago there's a big push to get people registered to vote in high schools and in colleges and teaching English class preparation for permanent residents who are eligible to apply for citizenship and helping them file their citizenship applications, so a lot is perking during this election year.
GSR: Do you want to address anything that we didn't ask?
Kinney: I think you are hearing from all of us that certainly comprehensive immigration reform needs to happen. We think there absolutely is a place at the table for religious women and not only the Catholic faith community but for all faith communities. All of us have seen how the interfaith piece works and that our networks can help expand their networks. So I think that's what you're hearing. It is a path to full citizenship through comprehensive immigration reform.
Kemme: We need to believe that we can do this together even though it is feeling like a long slow fight; we need to continue to raise hope and work together collectively to bring comprehensive immigration reform for our nation.
Karge: Part of that is allowing people to get on a path to citizenship. We've talked about TPS, we've talked about DACA and DAPA, but that is just a holding pattern. We're flying around O'Hare airport waiting to land, we need to go somewhere. These are just stopgap measures, and I don't want to sound like a wet blanket, but DAPA and DACA are just another Band-Aid on the wound. What we need is to cauterize the wound, clean it out, stitch it together, heal it up, and get people on the right track.
There's a section of the law, Section 249, that's called Registry — it's been in law since the early 1950s where people who have been here since 1924, 1956, and 1972, have been here, have not been criminals, have paid their taxes; they can apply for permanent resident status without having to have a family sponsor or an employer sponsor. So this is part of the culture of our immigration law. The first law, the guys who made the rules, they said, 'If you're here for two years you can be a citizen,' but that was only for free white persons so that excludes everybody in this group [of immigrants]. But anyway, like I say, immigration laws change, and if we have the political will, if we have the faith and if we believe that we all share God's breath and that's what makes us our community, that we can be brothers and sisters and breathe free and clear and join freedom and become who God has called us to be.
Kemme: From a faith and moral perspective, this is really clear: Without comprehensive immigration reform, we are not respecting the human dignity of our brothers and sisters. So from the faith perspective, it's clear.
A shorter, edited version of this conversation, with photos of the participants, can be read here:
Sisters urge reason, reform on immigration issues
A video of the conversation is available for viewing on YouTube.