Sisters urge reason, reform on immigration issues

One sister was recognized by Pope Francis on national television for her work on the U.S.-Mexico border. Another works with a parish in Cincinnati with a large Guatemalan population. One is an immigration attorney and has helped prepare asylum claims. Others assist in providing housing, training and jobs for immigrants; hold prayer vigils and rallies; and speak out to raise public awareness and urge policy changes.

Catholic women religious are on the front lines of immigration issues in the United States. 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.

Below is an edited transcript of the discussion. You can also read the full transcript, watch the full 50-minute video and learn more about the sisters.

GSR: Donald Trump has been proposing to build a wall at the U.S.-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: We have to take every avenue, every opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless, whether that's letters to the editor, 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: 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: 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: 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 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? We need to build a bridge, not a wall. 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: 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 that 'faces is 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?

Karge: Some of the basic principles of Catholic social teaching are, No. 1, 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.

Kinney: We need to acknowledge that we are a nation of immigrants. 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: 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 the wall, to meet people who have come across who are living in limbo without the laws that will help them to become citizens.

Pimentel: 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 to 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. If we ourselves were raising our children in these Central American countries, where violence is a fear every day, what would we want other countries to do if we were in that position? 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.

Koverman: 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, 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: Many of the families that come to the border 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.

Kemme: One of the most pressing issues is DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents], 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: 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.

Karge: Activating Congress to do their job. It's always been a question: Are immigration laws federal or are they local? 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.

Morris: 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.

Koverman: 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.

Pimentel: It's important to define a refugee from an immigrant. 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, which are in violation of our American laws and international law, and the access to counsel is the prime issue on that. [USCCB statement on family detention]

Pimentel: When an immigrant arrives and is detained for the very first time at a processing center, the very first person they are apprehended by and determines what their status is is a Border Patrol agent that probably does not have any skills 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.

GSR: Sister 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 these refugees 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: 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.

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 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.

Koverman: 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.

GSR: Returning to the detention issue, specifically the women and children: What about the move by the state of Texas and the private prison corporations to become licensed as child care providers? What do you think about that?

Pimentel: The conditions at the centers 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.

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 [Group], 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.

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 percent 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 nongovernmental 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. 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.

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.

GSR: What about alternatives that exist to the policy of detention of women and children? There are programs run by sisters, which 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 what efforts are being made to educate lawmakers that such programs exist?

Kinney: 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. This is mirrored across the country in many religious congregations where we've been running programs like this for years. 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. One is for women and children, especially women with families. 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.

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. For decades, people have paid a bond to assure their return to court. 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.

Weidenbenner: 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 [now USCIS]. 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.

Koverman: Most recent polls show that most Americans are supporting immigration reform. 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.

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?

Weidenbenner: It's being watched very closely. 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 ruled on. 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.

Karge: The legal issue underlying this is the power to take executive action, which almost every president has done since President Eisenhower. 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, workshops in adult education programs in parishes. 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 a 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. 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?

Kemme: 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: 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.

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. . . . 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, 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 full transcript of the conversation is available on Global Sisters Report.

A video of the conversation is available for viewing on YouTube.

Blessed John XXIII, left, and Pope Francis (CNS photos)
Blessed John XXIII, left, and Pope Francis (CNS photos)