MILWAUKEE — Sr. Josephe Marie Flynn stood in the middle of the Milwaukee city hall rotunda with more than a dozen supporters of immigration reform behind her.
“Immigration reform is not a political football; it is a human concerns issue; it is a moral issue,” Sr. Josephe said.
A School Sister of Notre Dame, she is the chairwoman of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Justice for Immigrants committee.
Representatives of different ethnicities and faith-based groups gathered last Friday to advocate for the passing of U.S. Senate Bill 774 the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” which passed in the Senate in June.
“The problem is the system is outdated, oversubscribed, under funded,” Sr. Josephe said. “Together with our Catholic bishops and faith communities everywhere, we profess that we need an immigration system that upholds our American values and honors the dignity of human rights of every person.”
The press conference included an unscheduled appearance by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett who told a story about a man he met facing deportation.
“He did something that every parent in this country would be proud of,” Barrett said. “He finished high school, he finished college and he was applying for a job. He was not documented but he played by the rules.”
He said the immigration debate needs to be taken more seriously.
“It needs to be addressed at an intelligent level without slander, without hatred and without racism,” Barrett said. “Our economy, in many ways, is dependent on these (undocumented) workers.”
In early August, Gov. Scott Walker fired the assistant deputy secretary at the state Department of Transportation, Steven Kriser, for an anti-immigrant rant on Facebook. Walker was praised at the press conference by several supporters of immigration reform for his action.
Rev. Joel Ellwanger, member of Milwaukee Inner-city Congregation Allied for Hope, likened the conduct of Kriser to “sophomoric humor that has gone awry.”
“Comprehensive immigration reform, which is moving forward, passed the Senate and is now in the House (of Representatives) is something that must move forward and must be clearly affirmed as soon as Congress reconvenes,” Rev. Ellwanger said.
For Sr. Josephe, the fight over immigration has been a central focus point for the last several years of her life.
Her book “Rescuing Regina: A Battle to Save a Friend from Deportation and Death,” chronicles the story of Regina Bakala who Sr. Josephe helped navigate the immigration labyrinth in order that she could secure residency in the United States.
“I’m well known in the city for having saved Regina Bakala from deportation. Those people know me as ‘The Immigrant Lady,’ the one who sticks up for immigrants,” Sr. Josephe said. “The system is so complicated and so beyond anyone’s full understanding, I don’t blame anyone.”
Sr. Josephe said her committee doesn’t directly aid immigrants but tries to educate the community.
“What we do is advocate for them … we’re very concerned about educating our own people as to the real issues,” she said.
She travels around to different parts of the archdiocese to talk to parishioners about immigration. Her message is generally well received, but she hears from opponents, too.
“I had one place where a man stood up and said, ‘We got to send them all back,’” Sr. Josephe said. “I just opened it up and other people stood up and said, ‘I hire them,’ ‘I can’t live without them.’”
Sr. Josephe hopes people look at the social justice teachings of Jesus to help form their opinion on the issue.
“Take a look at the Gospels, follow Jesus,” she said. “Jesus made it his life’s work to broaden the whole understanding of who the chosen people were. He went out of his way to befriend all these people and invite them into the kingdom of God. That’s what it’s really all about and if we don’t go back to the Gospels and hear him, then we’re not Christian.”