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February 15, 2002 Jan Pudlow Associate Editor Regular News Nun fights for immigrants’ rights Nun fights for immigrants’ rights Associate EditorAn hour from Naples’ lush championship golf courses, gated communities, beach-front condos, and five-star hotels, there is a humble farming town called Immokalee.With brightly colored stucco houses and storefronts bearing Spanish signs, it is home to many people who serve the rich residents and tourists of Naples. They mow fairways into perfect green carpets, dig ditches for new roads leading to yet more new housing developments, tend tropical plants that bloom in mansions’ gardens, launder fluffy white towels at health spas, make beds at luxury resorts, and pick oranges for fresh-squeezed juice poured at bountiful breakfast buffets.They come from faraway places for an opportunity to work in America: Haiti, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Honduras, even Uzbekistan.And it is here, in Immokalee, that 63-year-old Sister Maureen T. Kelleher has chosen to live and ply her unique blend of religious vows and legal training.As supervising attorney of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center — a nonprofit organization partially funded by The Florida Bar Foundation — she provides free legal services to those seeking permanent residency. Her business card bears these words over a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty: “Dedicated to protecting and promoting the basic human rights of immigrants of all nationalities.”“This is God’s work,” says the feisty, friendly nun with her law degree hanging on the wall and a gold cross dangling from her neck, the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Mary, her Tarrytown, N.Y.-based order.“I have worked in other fields of law. Now, I am concentrating on immigration law, because when I am able to help a person get legal status, I have not only helped that person, but I have helped the family back in whatever country they are from,” Kelleher said.“I am in awe at the commitment these farm workers have for the folks back home. It is stunning to me the amount of money they actually send back.. . . I love the fact that we are about taking people out of the shadows, getting them legal. And, also, it’s the best foreign aid program I’ve ever heard of because the money goes directly into the families.”To those who say, “Close the borders. We don’t want any more immigrants here,” Kelleher responds: “You could not have the society we have now if that were the case, because we have a huge amount of work Americans will not do. And yet, if Americans did do it, you could expect that wages would have to be much more attractive to get them to do it. And you would be paying a lot more for your haircut; you’d be paying a lot more for any tourist attraction.”Besides, adds the Irish nun with twinkling eyes, who among us in America did not descend from immigrants?“The American Indian, really, is the only one who can stand tall.”It is clear that Kelleher — who was honored last year with the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Pro Bono Award and the Florida Association for Women Lawyers’ Golden Achievement Award — has great respect for her clients.“I am looking at men and women who have fortitude, dedication, loyalty to their folks, and are so wonderful to work for. We do not charge money. But we do say, ‘Try to make a donation to help us keep going, so we can help the next person, and I can pay my bills.’ I am in a situation of watching people who are very hardworking, sometimes two jobs, and it’s such a surprise when they reach into their pockets and make a donation. They don’t have to. Frankly, we’re going to treat them all the same, no matterwhat.”Kelleher arrived at her legal career by taking the long way around.First, she became a nun.It was during her senior year at Marymount College that she prayed on the bank of the Hudson River and asked God what he wanted to do with her life. The answer she received came in the form of a clear knowing in her soul: Join a nunnery and dedicate her life to self-sacrifice and service to others.After two years of studying theology with the Sisters of Sacred Heart of Mary, her first job was teaching second grade in Garden City, N.Y., where she was known to her young students as Mother Philip Marie. Then came teaching English and religion in Harlem, South Bronx, North Bronx, higher degrees in English and religious education, and a post as assistant academic dean at her alma mater, Marymount College.During that time of service to others, her consciousness was further raised by news reports about hunger strikes and nonviolent protests of Mexican-American farm workers in California who wanted better pay and working conditions.“In my view, you should pray with the Gospel in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and work hard to make the values of the Gospel meet the needs of your time,” Kelleher said.In 1972, she got permission from her order to move to Washington, D.C., to join NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobbyist network, and she walked the halls of Congress, lobbying on bills that would afford better jobs, health care, and housing for the poor.Drawn more and more into issues facing farm workers, lobbying taught Kelleher the power of the law to open doors slammed shut to the poor, prompting her to go to Catholic University Law School in Washington, D.C.In 1984, she moved to Immokalee, where she landed a job as staff attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services, at a time Mayan Indians were fleeing Guatemalan villages in great numbers to escape the ravages of war.“My clients from Guatemala suffered from both the guerillas who came through the town first, and then the military would come in and say, ‘You’ve all been proselytized by the guerillas. And you know they’ve been supported by this town, and we’re going to make an example of you.’ So the military did the killings,” Kelleher said.“I have one client whose father was killed by the guerillas, whose mother was killed in aerial bombing. . . “I’ve had that question whether I would go to work in Salvador or Guatemala, in the early ’80s, when we were getting such incredible reports of violence, the death squads. But I think it’s better that I sit here and I help that Guatemalan family, than I go down there and walk the hills.”Specializing in immigration law means traveling the peaks of success and the valleys of anti-immigrant sentiment and corresponding restrictive policies and laws.In 1996, Congress passed what Kelleher calls “very anti-immigrant legislation” prohibiting legal services attorneys from working with clients who weren’t parents of U.S. citizen children or eligible for and seeking permanent residency. Rather than abandon her clients seeking political asylum, she struck out on her own.In a gutsy move she likened to “diving into a pool with no water,” Kelleher established the Immokalee office of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which is now a group effort with offices in Ft. Pierce and Miami, handling 9,881 cases since 1996. She also provides legal counsel and training in immigration law to people working in Catholic Charities offices throughout Southwest Florida, the not-for-profit charitable agency affiliated with the Diocese of Venice.She almost whispers: “We are operating in the red. If a copy machine breaks down, it is catastrophic.”On this day in Immokalee, her cramped waiting room overflows with dark-skinned clients clutching papers in calloused hands, hopeful immigrants seeking permanent residency in the land of the free. Kelleher says she couldn’t manage without her pair of multi-lingual paralegals.“The wages the two paralegals get are scandalous! One speaks English, Creole, and French. The other speaks Spanish and English. They are superlative, just excellent! They come in here and say: ‘You’ve got to do something for this woman!’”Sometimes, there is cause to celebrate, such as helping the battered woman whose husband threatened to revoke his petition for her citizenship if she complained about the beatings. Kelleher helped the woman self-petition for residency and live free from abuse.On this morning, though, she has just delivered the bad news to another woman who had been granted asylum, because of well-founded fear of persecution in her home country, that the man she later married would have a nine-year wait to gain legal status in this country.“We celebrate the fact that she got political asylum,” Kelleher says with a big sigh, trying to stay hopeful.She works in an increasingly anti-immigrant atmosphere, she said, especially after the September 11 attacks and news that some of the terrorists had Florida ties.Her face furrows with concern telling the story of a recent incident in Sebring: Cops stop a car, despite no traffic infraction. One officer was satisfied when the driver of the car had a permanent residence card. But a second officer stepped up to the passenger side and asked the passenger for proof of his license and immigration card.“He seized it. He takes away the license. There’s no giving appeals rights. There’s no receipt given for the seizure of that driver’s license. So the poor man, who is married to a citizen, and soon going for his (immigration) interview, is now all of a sudden stuck with no license and cannot go to work, because he can’t drive there. It’s a never-ending spiral.. . . This creeping grab of civil rights and the anti-immigration sentiment such that a passenger in a car — with no violation or citation — that they are pulling them over and grabbing licenses. I think that is way beyond what we as a society would normally do.”Another very troubling change in the law, she said, is that no matter when an immigrant committed a crime, their permanent residency card will be taken away.“They want to go back to Adam and Eve,” Kelleher said, incredulous that a minor offense decades ago can nix a client’s status as a permanent resident. “They want to redefine things. The tragedy is low-income people don’t have attorneys to fight for them in criminal court. What they basically do is cop a plea, because the public defender says: ‘Look, you’ll get out of here.’ They’re out, they’re happy, and then later they learn that which they pled to has many consequences.”She knows she must remain vigilant and on top of the latest in immigration law.Her inspiration, her reason to keep trying, she said with a wry smile is “knowing that the bureaucracy can be trained.”This sparks the telling of a story about the time she accompanied a Russian woman to the Immigration and Naturalization Services interview in Miami. The woman was a battered spouse.“Where’s your police report?” asked the interviewer.Kelleher: “She doesn’t have a police report, and it’s not required. And frankly, she’s already passed this part, because she has already filed and been approved as a battered spouse.”“Oh,” says the INS interviewer. “No police report?”Another officer walked in and said: “No police report? You’re outta here!”So Kelleher left with her client and wrote a scathing letter citing regulations and sent it to the attention of the INS director.A few months later, Kelleher got another call to bring the Russian woman back, and they walked into the INS building in Miami, at 7880 Biscayne Blvd.“A supervisor called me up and said, ‘Boy, did your letter cause something in this building! We had to call in all our adjudications officers and train them on the regulations.’”Kelleher can’t help but break into a broad, satisfied grin at the telling.She deals daily with the INS, which she called “terribly underfunded, terribly overworked.”“The people are stressed. They can’t keep up. As a matter of fact, I have battered spouses whose decisions have been pending and pending and pending, because INS hasn’t even written the regulations yet for the changes in law that affect my clients,” Kelleher said. “And INS, unfortunately, has a high error rate, as far as I can see, in the 90 days to give a work card by the time a person gets here. They can’t turn around a card in 90 days. So I then say to the client: ‘Take the receipt and go over to Miami and stand in that line, which starts at 5 in the morning and earlier, and see if they will process you for your work card.’”She throws back her head and laughs heartily at the suggestion that she must be a patient woman.“These walls have heard a lot!”She asks the lawyers of Florida to hear this plea: “I think in this time of high patriotism and really the crackdown on all threats of terrorism, I ask for the legal community to be especially sensitive to immigrants in this hour, for they are running very, very scared. Some of them aren’t even coming out of their homes for fear someone is going to stop them.“I would say we have a percent of undocumented who are just terrified at this time, terrified. And what we need to do is really make sure that in our quest to do the weeding out of those who basically are abusing the system, to separate who are here, yes, unlawfully, because of the poverty in their home countries, but who have been here for years and have never broken the law, except to enter unlawfully. And let’s do some restraint, because we are giving up a lot of civil liberties.”
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