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Nuns hit the road again for real immigration reform

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Nine nuns stepped off a tour bus — its sky blue sleek sides adorned with a dozen huge hands up in the air and foot-high purple letters proclaiming “Raise Your Hands, Raise Your Voice” — in Los Angeles a little before 7 p.m. on June 14 at 3655 S. Grand Ave. They were appropriately greeted by a 50-plus bevy of nearly hysterical fans, clapping and cheering like they were — well, rock stars playing a primo gig at the not-far-away Staples Center.But the nine women religious (plus, at times, 32 other sisters from different communities) had ridden the bus from Liberty State Park in New Jersey, with its postcard view of Ellis Island — the gateway for millions of newcomers to America from 1892 to 1954 — to the Golden State to champion comprehensive immigration reform.Along the way, they managed to squeeze in three events a day, which often included a “friendraiser” and a lobby visit to a Congress member’s office, as well as a site visit to an agency serving newly arrived immigrants or the poor. Their determination and willingness to take on this task, and its formidable physical challenges, was exemplified by Sister of Social Service Diane Donoghue of Los Angeles. She founded the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation in 1989, which started Mercado La Paloma in 1999 that today houses nine ethnic restaurants in Latin American-style food booths and seven nonprofits above them in a converted garment factory and warehouse. And this is the place where the Nuns on the Bus arrived last Friday evening.“Sisters have such credibility,” said Sister Donoghue, who rode the big blue bus from Orlando to San Antonio, and who currently does development work for her community. “And people absolutely acknowledge the fact that we’ve always been with the poor. I mean, we started with hospitals and schools when the public schools and hospitals wouldn’t take immigrants. Sisters followed immigrants every single time — Italians, Germans, Irish, everybody.“So when we talk to people, people say, ‘I don’t always agree with you, but I’m willing to listen to what you have to say. I’m willing to hear your story.’ And as a result, people change their minds. The trip’s been such an amazing experience because we have watched the tide turn, literally. But we absolutely have to stay on immigration reform now, because right now there’s momentum.” Sister Gail Young, a younger member of the Sisters of Social Service, got on the bus in El Paso and stayed with the tour through its June 15 visit to LAMP (Los Angeles Ministry Project) in South L.A. The agency provides family life education and services to low-income struggling families and individuals.“Just hearing the stories of immigrants really got to me,” she said. “Going down to the border in cities like Nogales [Arizona] and San Diego, where you can see how they built two walls about 50 yards away from each other.”A grinning Sister Young held up a white T-shirt with the signatures of immigrants and other folks she talked to and heard their life stories on the bus trip. “They need to be at the table, too,” she pointed out. “Immigration reform is about all of us.”Rolling redux tourFrom Liberty State Park with its view of Ellis Island on May 29 to a San Francisco rally in the shadow of Angel’s Island on June 18, the Nuns on the Bus logged 6,500 miles across 15 states. Their goal: To support federal legislation that offers a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million aspiring Americans, that promotes family unity and that protects the rights of all immigrant workers. The rolling redux tour, which included women religious from around the country, was sponsored by NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby founded by 47 sisters more than 40 years ago. Last summer saw the first incarnation of Nuns on the Bus to protest the so-called “Ryan Budget” (named after its sponsor, Rep. Paul Ryan) that proposed drastic cuts in programs serving the nation’s poor. Promoting faith, family and citizenship in 2013, 41 mostly off-and-on-the-bus sisters took a not-so-leisurely southern route across the United States this summer, visiting federal office holders including Sen. John McCain in Phoenix and Rep. John Campbell in Irvine; stopping in El Paso, Las Cruces, San Diego and other border cities; and visiting more than 50 faith-based community organizations serving the needy.And during this late spring’s odyssey, the sisters stayed focused on listening to and then telling the stories of men, women and children severely impacted by the country’s broken immigration system.‘Reclaim our nation’During the planned presentation at Mercado La Paloma, three other bus riders shared their own thoughts and observations on the social justice trip of a lifetime.Sister Marge Clark, NETWORK’s lobbyist on domestic human needs, talked about a mother named Salina she met along America’s southwest border. The woman, like so many undocumented immigrants the nuns came across, lived in daily fear that her son would be picked up by border patrol agents, taken to an ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention center and then deported without even being allowed to make a phone call. “Salina talked about how often they [border patrol agents] come to her trailer park and just sit there in their cars, while at other times they’d stop a car and take the driver immediately to ICE,” said Sister Clark. “So it just struck me how very arbitrary the process really is, and how very cruel it can be.”Sister Bernadine Karge had only joined the tour the night before in San Diego. But the Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa from Chicago said she wanted dearly to be a nun on the bus because of her background of practicing immigration law for 30 years. “On 9/11 2001, we entered what I call the Ice Age,” she explained. “Immigrants were considered illegal and criminals. And the idea was ‘Throw them out!’ My prayer and my hope is that we can have a new Ice Age, where we are inclusive and compassionate and embrace the diversity that is among us.“We know that we need immigrants, and we need to tell our congressmen that. Who knows what’s going to come out the other end of the ‘sausage machine’ [Congress]. So please, get the word out.”Another member of NETWORK’s team, who had been on the bus since it hit the road on the east coast, was Daughter of Charity Sister Ellen Lacy. The lawyer and advocate for immigration reform told how successful three “dreamers” she met named Lydia, Ida and Chris — who were all fortunate to be covered by President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order — were already in their young lives. But Sister Lacy stressed that the president’s order was only a temporary fix.“The reality is there are millions out there who are just beautiful ‘dreamers,’ ready, willing and offering to help our country,” she said. “And this new immigration bill will enable them to be full citizens.” The last nun on the bus to speak was Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK. The Long Beach native said when she started the cross-country trip with her women religious compadres, she expected undocumented immigrants they befriended, of course, to have a “generic” fear of being deported. What she didn’t realize was the many other forms this anxiety would take. There was 17-year-old Ida, a “dreamer” protected by DACA, who not only feared every day that her undocumented parents would be deported, but also felt guilty that she was safe, at least for now, and they weren’t.After both parents were picked up and deported, another teenager the sisters encountered was taking care of twin siblings. Her major fear was that she wasn’t raising them “right.” At the Catholic Charities office in Dallas, people who worked with undocumented immigrants feared that their clients would waste what little money they had on fraudulent agencies promising a quick fix to any immigration problem.And then Sister Campbell recalled an on-the-road happening that instilled fear — along with tremendous sadness — in her. The chairman of a Native American tribe outside Tucson reported how he had found a woman’s body in the desert. She was curled up in a fetal position, and when he rolled her over she was still cradling an infant in her stiff arms. “This is wrong,” the attorney and poet lamented. “For me it renewed my commitment to making sure that there is comprehensive immigration reform with a sure path forward to citizenship. So we agree with the bishops. ‘We the people’ have got to reclaim our nation.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0621/nuns/{/gallery}

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