KANSAS CITY, Mo. –– 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.
A woman holds a crucifix during a rally sponsored by immigration advocates Jan. 15 outside the Supreme Court in Washington. (CNS photo/Michael Reynolds, EPA)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 sponsored by Faith in Public Life and Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby, and in partnership with the Sisters of Mercy and the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan.
The sisters who took part in the roundtable:

– Bernadine Karge is a Sinsinawa (Wisconsin) Dominican Sister and an 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, New York, 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 member of 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.
The full transcript of the discussion is available at http://tinyurl.com/jaydflu. The full 50-minute video of the roundtable can be viewed on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/jhzmk94. Learn more about the sisters at http://tinyurl.com/gnpaxdm.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the transcript of the discussion:
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 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, 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 are 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.