Sister immigration lawyers ply expertise at border, in courtrooms

The stories and images are powerful. Delivered into living rooms nightly, they capture the faces of crying children and parents, panicked immigrants fleeing violence and anxious students facing deportation.

Operating in that swirl are women who quietly tap into their faith to advocate for the undocumented. These are sisters from various congregations. They also happen to be immigration attorneys.

The rewards are great but the stakes are high, says Holy Cross Sr. Sharlet Wagner, the new president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. "If you lose the case, you're talking about someone's life," she says. "They'll be shipped back to a country where they may very well be killed."

Women religious advocate for immigrants, helping them resettle and find education and services in the U.S. Sisters with legal expertise are on the frontlines of changing immigration policies that brought about the separation of families at the border and that have made it more difficult for Central Americans to gain asylum. They work to educate those American citizens whose voices against immigrants grow louder each day. Although some lawyer sisters have retired, all remain active, volunteering in a legal capacity or advocating for those trying to gain a foothold. Called to the legal profession for various reasons, the sisters spoke of the challenges they face and how their faith anchors their commitment.

"This is intrinsically redemptive work," says Society of the Holy Child Jesus Sr. Ann Durst, who has made it her mission to get legal representation for minors arriving at the southern border. "It doesn't get any rawer than this."

Sr. Ann Durst

Durst co-founded the Casa Cornelia Law Center in San Diego with Society of the Holy Child Jesus Sr. Mary Wayne Gradon, in 1993. The nonprofit offers legal services to indigent victims of human rights violations, such as asylum-seekers, unaccompanied children and victims of violent crimes. "Every child detained by immigration authorities in San Diego has had the free services of Casa Cornelia Law Center since 2001," Durst said.

For 11 years the center represented about 100 children per year, but since 2012, that number has grown to approximately 900. A total of 2,441 adults and children were served in 2017, said Elizabeth Camarena, Casa Cornelia's associate director.

Durst was led into the legal profession through theology classes at Marquette University where, she said, she began to see the law as "life giving" and "redemptive."

"Good law puts things in order and frees us to live more fully about more important things," Durst said. "Even in terms of our immigration laws, if they are properly enforced, it enables people who are fleeing to find safe haven."

The center and Durst's faith are inextricably linked, said Camarena, who has known Durst for 24 years. "Whenever she comes around and speaks for others ... I think that they are left with a very real picture and a very complete picture as to why this law center exists."

In 1982 Durst earned her law degree from Georgetown Law. Although she no longer practices law, Durst still serves on Casa Cornelia's board, chairs its strategic planning committee and helps its law center raise the $2.5 million it needs annually to operate. "It's probably doubled in the last five years, but I think it shows you what's happening," Durst said.

Nearly every child from Central America is fleeing violence, Durst said. "Whether or not they may be eligible for relief under the law is what we're dealing with constantly because the law ... and policies are in a state of incredible flux."

She means the recent change in immigration policy announced in June by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In a decision overturning a precedent-setting court case, Sessions said asylum-seekers can no longer use gang or domestic violence as reasons for protection in the U.S.

Despite the changes, Durst is undeterred and holds that cases are won on their individual merits.

However, Durst said she is troubled by how enforcement of immigration has changed. "It's one thing if people were discovered," Durst said. "It's a whole other thing to hunt people, and I can't tell you how that haunts me."

Durst also condemned the recent separation of families. "It's absolutely reprehensible," she said and pointed out that the law is a misdemeanor. "Can you imagine any state ... terminating parental rights, or taking children away from parents because of a misdemeanor, a bounced check or what, shoplifting?"

To center herself in the midst of this crisis, she draws upon words Camarena said to her: " 'We will do what we are doing and we will continue to serve the most vulnerable among this population.' "

Sr. Attracta Kelly

Offering refuge to immigrants in the 1980s led to a career change for Dominican Sr. Attracta Kelly. At that time, her Adrian, Michigan, congregation was housing Guatemalan and El Salvadoran war refugees who needed a place to stay while en route to Canada.

"I thought, if I knew immigration law, I would be much more helpful to those people," said Kelly who had spent years as an educator. Although she passed the bar exam in 1996, education remains at the heart of her law career, especially when chants of "build the wall" erupt at political rallies.

Education is crucial, she said, "so that when people say things that are downright stupid and not true, that you know enough to be able to say, 'That's not how it is.' "

Kelly frequently invites herself to give immigration-related talks. "I have not yet been at a presentation that people don't say to me later, 'I had no idea; I absolutely had no idea that that's how this worked.' "

A past winner of the St. Thomas More award from the Catholic Lawyers Guild in Lansing, Michigan, Kelly blames the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment on ignorance. "There's a fear, I think that people think, if we ... accept people of other races, other nationalities, that they themselves will lose out on something or other," Kelly said.

It's a fear that Kelly encountered when she, as a principal, tried to integrate St. Bede School in Montgomery, Alabama, in the early '70s. An Irish immigrant, Kelly said she didn't understand racism in the U.S. "I never thought we would, as a Catholic school, decide people could not enter because of their race," Kelly said. "I found out differently."

Most upset with the decision was a briefcase-wielding parent, an attorney, whose "big concern was that if we take African-American children in school, that before long, they will intermarry and we will destroy the white race," Kelly said.

The school pastor avoided a meeting with parents signaling that he did not support Kelly's decision. Upset parents called and wrote notes on her behalf. The next day, a contrite pastor came to see her, saying, " 'Don't ever let me do that again,' " Kelly said.

After a period in Ireland, she returned to the South to direct the Immigrants Legal Assistance Project for the North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.

One challenge was bringing immigration cases before Atlanta judges who were more strict. Managing about 500 clients at any given time, Kelly "had a great success rate compared to the overall success rate of those who ran cases down there," said Bill Rowe, the Justice Center's general counsel and deputy director of advocacy.

Kelly gained the trust of one woman from Congo-Brazzaville, who testified about being gang-raped by soldiers while her husband was in prison. During closing arguments, Kelly could hear the woman sobbing behind her. The judge was so moved that he granted asylum to the couple, Kelly said.

"She jumped up and starts hugging me and we're both crying, and laughing and carrying on," said Kelly, who struggled to regain her composure before the judge. "We have given them life ... and they are able to live life because of that."

In 2010, Kelly received the Nancy Susan Reynolds Award for advocacy from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. From there she left to serve her Adrian congregation as prioress until 2016.

Although Kelly said she hasn't been treated differently for being a sister, she does admit that it's easier for her to take risks because she doesn't have to worry about being fired.

She gets up at 5 a.m. to pray and contemplate, which she said she finds essential, and tends to walk-in clients who show up early at her congregation's Immigrants Legal Assistance Office where she is the director and sole attorney. "My being with people I consider part of being — talking to God," Kelly said. "Now talking to judges is another story."

Sr. Kelly Carpenter

Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Kelly Carpenter found her legal calling while visiting detained immigrants as part of a Jesuit Refugee Service program. During these visits in Queens, New York, she began questioning the role of barriers.

"Why are certain people considered outsiders?" Carpenter asked. "Why is there this barrier between us and what can we do to overcome that barrier?"

Eventually she went on mission in Immokalee, Florida, where she did paralegal work under the guidance of Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Maureen Kelleher, an attorney for the then Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

"Basically, she made me go to law school," Carpenter said of Kelleher. "Her reasoning was I could do a lot more with a law degree, so it was just another tool to help people."

A few years after earning her degree from City University of New York School of Law in 2009, her congregation in Sleepy Hollow, New York, added legal services to its RSHM Life Center, a community service organization where Carpenter has practiced since 2013.

"The legal work is something very concrete," Carpenter said. "You can write motions and make arguments and fill out applications, so in a way ... it's probably one of the easiest ways to overcome barriers."

But those barriers have grown as President Donald Trump's administration has shifted its immigration policies.

"It's very, very, very disheartening," Carpenter said of policy changes that she fears will jeopardize her clients' cases.

Where others see a "criminal," or a "smuggler," the sister sees a mother who crossed the border to keep her child from being killed. "We've had asylum laws for years; don't tell me it's illegal to ask for asylum in the United States," Carpenter said.

Although she is the sole immigration attorney in her office, Carpenter said she sometimes turns to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. hotline for advice.

She is also grateful for the support offered by her fellow sisters who sent her to law school and keep her organization going. "What I do is part of who we are," Carpenter said. "It's not separate from who we are as a province or as an institute."

Daily prayer, she said, is her "daily connection" and when giving clients bad news, she reminds them of their faith with the help of the pope — a poster-sized photo of Francis waving atop her file cabinet.

"When I'm making clients cry because there's nothing I can do for them, I say, 'Just look at the pope and ... it'll be OK,' " Carpenter said.

Though she doesn't get treated differently just because she's a sister, she confessed that at times she has "played the religious card." One time a client needed a letter from the sheriff. "So Sister Kelly called," she said, and "Sister Kelly" was successful.

Sr. Bernadine Karge

Immigration advocacy and education has been at the forefront of Sr. Bernadine Karge's legal career, which began in 1979 with a law degree from Howard University. A Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, she started doing legal work for nonprofits in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. By 1984, she was practicing immigration law with Catholic Charities where she dispelled some misconceptions the public had toward immigrants and about her vocation.

"People would come and then they'd find out I was a nun and they'd say, 'Oh, Bernadine, she's not a real lawyer,' " Karge said. Her clients would then go to a lawyer downtown who charged $1,000, compared to Catholic Charities' $50 fee. That would send them scurrying back, Karge said. "They thought, 'Oh, maybe she is a real lawyer.' "

Karge handled citizenship cases, visas, removal defense, amnesty applications and Temporary Protected Status designations. Over the years, she witnessed the evolution of immigration policy from "more welcoming" to "restrictive and exclusionary."

"We've done a complete 'throw 'em out and build the wall,' " said Karge, who believes the U.S. government continues to "do in" the home countries of the immigrants who are coming. She blames these attitudes on white Americans fearful of winding up in the minority. "The wall is totally ridiculous — it's a medieval ... remedy to a modern day thing."

Karge ticked off other myths she heard over the years: that undocumented immigrants take jobs from Americans and need to "get in line" to gain legal status.

"Americans will not do that stoop labor," Karge said. Since many immigrants lack a relative or employer to sponsor them, "there is no line for many people to get into to get a visa for permanent residence."

Although at times she voices frustration, Karge is known for her optimism, said Olga Rojas, a former chair for the Chicago chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Despite what's going on, she thinks things can be fixed and she thinks we need to be a part of it to do it."

At times, the sister uses wry wit and sarcasm to address some of the attitudes she encounters.

She described how one of her clients was pulled over by police for having a loud muffler, "because we really are in dire fear of people with loud mufflers, right? This is who we need to be protected from."

But she turned serious as she told the story of Pedro Pedroza, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 4 and went on to earn a scholarship to Cornell University. Traveling back to the university from Chicago in 2008, he encountered border patrol agents when they boarded his bus and asked if he was a U.S. citizen.

"When I saw border patrol agents, I did what ... I've always done, which is tell the truth," Pedroza, now 33, said in an interview. After being released from custody, Pedroza sought the help of Chicago attorneys, but they did not provide "anywhere near the level of care, attention and really dignity" that Karge did.

With three days to spare, Karge was able to get him temporary relief from deportation. He got the news while getting his passport printed at the Mexican consul's office.

Now a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA) recipient, Pedroza eventually graduated from Cornell and credits Karge for giving him the opportunity to give back to the community. He worked as a Catholic school administrator, a special projects associate for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and is now a project coordinator for City Colleges of Chicago.

While Karge no longer sets the alarm clock, she still volunteers her services. She's been to the family detention center in Dilley, Texas, five times and she sometimes takes turns working in the monthly clinics run by Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"She's a ball of energy," Rojas said. "She's an inspiration for everything that she's doing when she could just be enjoying her retirement." Rojas' chapter awarded the sister with the Joseph Minsky Award in 2016 for her work in Dilley.

Through various nonprofits, such as Detention Watch and Network, and initiatives such as Network's Nuns on the Bus tour, Karge advocates on behalf of immigrants, work that has brought her close to Network's executive director, Simone Campbell.

"We're great pals forever in the crazy girls category of life," she said.

Sr. Sharlet Wagner

Securing visas for others was at the center of Sr. Sharlet Wagner's law career. "I always said I wanted to do immigration law but I always said I would never do visa work," the Holy Cross sister said, because there is no recourse if a visa is denied. "So of course all I'm doing now is visa work. God has a good sense of humor."

Wagner started a U visa program for victims of violent crimes, such as domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, at Holy Cross Ministries in Salt Lake City, Utah. Later she became the go-to attorney who secured visas for novices. Tourist visas were the hardest because sisters don't have bank accounts, businesses or spouses to tie them to their home countries.

To establish religious ties, some embassy officials quizzed the sisters in what Wagner called, "Catholic Trivial Pursuit." One Kenyan sister, she said, was denied because she didn't know who was the last pope to resign before Pope Benedict around 600 years ago: Gregory XII in 1415.

"I wouldn't know it," Wagner said. "Let me give them some questions that a religious would know."

A class on social thought at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Indiana, and her interactions with the people of Uganda planted the seeds that launched Wagner's law career. "I developed a desire to be able to use the gifts ... to use the brain God gave me and the abilities God gave me to help to address the injustices that I saw," Wagner said.

Thanks to her supportive congregation, she earned a degree from Loyola Law School in 1999 and started a pro bono detention project at the Mira Loma Immigration and Naturalization Services Detention Center in Lancaster, California.

Asylum cases were the hardest and most difficult to prove. "They (asylum-seekers) don't come with a note from the torturer saying, 'I tortured this person,' " Wagner said.

She described the recent policy changes that make it more difficult to prove asylum as "cruel" and found it difficult to wrap her mind around how Americans support them. Wagner believes that politicians are "using fear and playing on fear and hatred to divide us in order to gain more power for themselves."

Her response to immigration critics is to look at Scripture, such as these verses from Leviticus: "When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. ... you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt."

As president of LCWR, Wagner now finds herself in a support role for those working on behalf of immigrants. To stay "grounded," she said she relies on prayer as the antidote to bitterness. "Strong prayer life enables you to hang on to a sense of hope and to know that love is stronger than hate."

[Nuri Vallbona is a freelance documentary photojournalist. She worked for the Miami Herald from 1993 to 2008 and has been a lecturer at the University of Texas and Texas Tech University.]