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Out of the habit, into the fire

Not even Immigration and Customs Enforcement can stop two Chicago-area nuns bent on bringing humanity to system

Woodstock, Ill.—This time, Astrid Morataya asks for a map of the world.

Dressed in a orange prison jumpsuit, Morataya, who has been in McHenry County Jail for 14 months in the midst of ongoing deportation proceedings, tells the volunteer sitting across from her in the prison library that many of the immigrant women detained here have little concept of where they are or of the many miles they have traveled.  

Many are from Central America and Mexico, but others come from the far-flung corners of Africa, Europe and Asia. Some were flown to this detention facility after they were arrested at the border and do not speak English; others overstayed work or travel visas; still others like Morataya, a 39-year-old mother of three, grew up in the United States.

Brought here from Guatemala when she was seven years old, Morataya now lives in terror of a return passage.

“My children don’t speak any Spanish,” she says. “When I see other parents risking their kids’ lives to send them here — how am I supposed to drag them out and take them back?”

In 1999, Morataya agreed to a plea bargain on a drug-trafficking charge. Fifteen years later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came looking for her.

“I know that we were supposed to go by the law, but people sometimes make mistakes. I made a mistake,” she says. “This is my country. I don’t want to leave.”

There are, nevertheless, a few bright spots in Morataya’s lengthy detention as she appeals her case, such as the 30-minute visits from her 21-year-old daughter every few months when she can make the five-hour drive from Washington, Iowa. There are also the 20-minute weekly visitations from volunteers with the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants, who provide a kind of spiritual counseling known as pastoral care. They come to McHenry every Tuesday to sit with the detained immigrants and ask about the rhythm of their weeks, their hopes, their anxieties.

They bring the prisoners what they can — a pair of eyeglasses, a Bible in their native tongue, perhaps a world map. They dutifully take down the names and numbers of the immigrants’ family members, and do what they can to get in touch, making long-distance calls to every corner of the globe. This week, the volunteers see 66 men and nine women across four sessions.

Most of all, they are at McHenry to try to ease the detainees’ isolation.


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Sister Joann Persch
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On this Tuesday, Sister JoAnn Persch quietly surveys the proceedings, writing checks for those whose commissary balances have fallen below $10.

With her soft voice, slight stature, and propensity to greet jail guards and prisoners alike with a hug or a touch on the hand, it may be hard to imagine that Persch, 80, is one of the most fierce and effective advocates in the Chicago area for detained immigrants, and one of the architects of the hard-won pastoral care program at McHenry.

Persch and her colleague Sister Pat Murphy, 85, both nuns with the Sisters of Mercy religious order, have fought a dogged, years-long battle to secure rights and improve conditions for those in the crosshairs of the United States’ much-lambasted deportation policies.

With the Obama administration removing undocumented immigrants at an unprecedented clip and no legislative relief in sight, the two sisters, like much of the faith community involved in the push for reform, say they feel no less than a moral obligation to bring compassion into a fundamentally inhumane system.

“We do it peacefully and respectfully,” Persch explains. “But we don’t take no for an answer.”

Before Morataya is led away again by prison guards, her counselor during this session reminds her to keep the faith.

“Remember,” she says. “You are not alone.”

Sister Joann Persch and a volunteer comfort a woman who has just said goodbye to a loved one.
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They started unobtrusively enough: on a snowy winter day in January 2007, Persch and Murphy stood outside an ICE processing facility in Broadview, Ill. — one of the immigrants’ last stops in the United States before they are sent back to their home countries — and prayed.

The Sisters of Mercy had directed Persch and Murphy to turn their attention to the immigration issue, one that the organization called “of critical concern.” But then, as now, activists were hitting wall after wall on the policy front.

“Well, if we can’t do anything more politically or by protesting, we decided, OK, maybe if we prayed,” Murphy said one afternoon in the home she shares with Persch.

Recovering from a broken bone triggered by her osteoporosis, Murphy, even confined to an armchair, remains indignant about what the sisters saw that morning: detainees, with their hands and feet shackled, being led onto buses to be taken to the airport in nothing except shorts and T-shirts in the bitter Chicago winter.

Persch admits she did not understand the intricacies of detention policies then, but she knew what she was seeing was wrong.

The weekly vigil outside of the Immigration Enforcement processing facility in Broadview.
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The sisters were so moved by the experience, they began to hold vigils outside Broadview every Friday morning. In addition, they submitted requests to ICE officials to gain access to both the Broadview facility and McHenry County Jail to provide religious counseling, and to board the deportation buses for a final prayer.

Harmless enough, but in the sisters’ telling, they were unceremoniously shooed away.

“Their attitude was ‘Who do you think you are?’” Persch says. “’We’re not letting you in here.’”

But the sisters were not so easily shaken loose. The pair began an aggressive campaign, writing letters to federal officials, lobbying legislators in the state capital, and showing up at candidate forums to ask questions about detention policies.

In 2008, the Illinois state legislature, at their persistent urging, finally passed an act that compelled ICE-contracted county jails, like McHenry, to allow detainees the right to see religious workers.

Painstakingly, inch by inch, they secured further concessions, from holding winter clothing drives to making sure proper protocols were followed by prison guards.

Softness was one side of their approach — it is difficult, for many, to get angry with a woman of God, especially one in her 80s.

“The way we have worked with the people at the jail and Broadview has always been to be respectful,” Murphy says, “believing that we don’t agree with them but that they too are our brothers and sisters.”

The waiting area at the Broadview ICE facility.
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Brazenness was another. Getting nowhere in their quest to gain access to the federally controlled Broadview facility after a year of trying, Persch and Murphy, working with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, threatened in early 2009 to lay their bodies down in front of the deportation buses.  

Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Coalition, described the pair in a press advisory as “spry, elderly nuns.”

“I said, ‘Fred, I don’t mind you telling my age to the whole world, but you called me elderly?’” Persch recalls, chuckling. “Really? That hurts.”

Alarmed at the prospect of two nuns being rolled over by thousand-pound Department of Homeland Security vehicles, suddenly, ICE officials were ready to negotiate. The protest at Broadview never happened and in the months following, the nuns’ demands were grudgingly met.

As the years passed, Persch and Murphy have expanded their services to immigrant detainees and become near-legend in the reform community, known for the results they achieve and their inexhaustible spunk.

In 2012, their loose coalition of supporters formed an officially registered nonprofit – the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants.

Tsao, who has known the sisters since 2008, said Persch and Murphy fill a critical need in immigration advocacy. The detained have almost no say in the policies and procedures that upend their lives and no voice in the political process. Simply by showing up week after week, the sisters are their link to the outside world.

“They are a joy to be around even in the most difficult moments,” Tsao says. “They keep going, they are dogged in their determination, and they are so incredibly feisty. Their faith is abiding.”

Rosaires are passed out at the ICE facility.
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JoAnn Persch first met Pat Murphy in 1959, when the duo were the youngest nuns assigned to set up a Catholic elementary school in Wisconsin. Even the convent is not free of a little light hazing, Persch explains.

“Because we cooked, cleaned, starched, ironed, shopped, we either could have loved or hated each other,” she says. “But that year, we ended up becoming very close. We both realized how much we shared the same values, especially around social issues.”

In the 1960s, change was roiling the Catholic Church. The Vatican had signaled its desire to engage with the problems of the contemporary world, instead of being cloistered in its own affairs.

The sisters enthusiastically embraced that edict. Reflecting the evolution of the Church, after donning habits in their early careers, the sisters eventually shed those formal garments in favor of jeans and blouses.

“I’m sure some would still like to see us locked back into the convent at 6 p.m.,” Persch says cheerfully.

The sisters’ paths crossed intermittently in subsequent decades as they lived and worked together on and off. They were reunited for good in 1990, when they started Su Casa Catholic Worker house together, a home for displaced Hispanic women and children, including Central American survivors of torture.

After years immersed in the immigration and refugee system, Persch and Murphy offer a sophisticated and blistering critique of U.S. policies — from the quota that mandates 34,000 prison beds a night must be filled with immigrant detainees to the backlogged immigration courts to the role the United States’ drug war has played in fueling the violence in Central America.

“The root cause of it all is poverty,” Murphy says. “It’s the poverty and the wars and the conflicts that are driving these people. To turn children away, and women — what they’ve gone through — those are the things that cry to heaven for vengeance.”

“This whole period is going to go down in history as a shameful period. Just shameful,” Murphy adds.

A man holds a rosary given to him by the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants.
Saverio Truglia for Al Jazeera America

The Obama administration and ICE insist that their deportation priorities are targeted at immigrants who have committed significant offenses — “criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community,” as President Obama put it in 2012 during a presidential debate.

The sisters vehemently counter that claim, ticking off on their fingers story after story of immigrants who they say posed no threat to society, but were still ripped away from their families and communities.

“All of the officers tried to convince us these are all hardened criminals; why would you bother with them anyways?” Persch says. “We’re people of faith, we bother with anyone that needs us.”

The sisters say the comprehensive immigration bill currently mired in the House of Representatives would certainly not fix everything, particularly for immigrants with even minor criminal offenses on their records, but it would be a start. Until there is a permanent solution, the sisters are determined to man the front lines of the battle.

“It’s frustrating, it enrages you, it’s depressing,” Murphy says. “But as long as this happens, we’ll keep doing it and we’ll be at the detention center.”

“We believe in those people and we believe what’s happening is wrong.”

Sister Joann Persch speaks to relatives of Rosendo Juarez-Hernandez on the day he was scheduled to be deported.
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On a clear Friday morning, as she has done for the last seven years, Sister Joann Persch drives from her home on the South Side of Chicago and arrives at 5 o’clock in the morning outside the drab, squat ICE facility in Broadview.

As the sky lightens, family members begin to line up on the sidewalk, dragging small roller-board suitcases and duffel bags.

Today, Maritza Cruz’s father is being deported back to Mexico.

Rosendo Juárez-Hernández, 57, according to ICE records, was arrested for driving under the influence and served a year in Illinois jail before being handed over to ICE.

In the eyes of the law, Juárez-Hernández has also committed a felony — he recrossed the border in 1985 after being deported for the first time in 1984. In the eyes of the law, it matters little that Juárez-Hernández has seven children, all born in the United States.

“Right now he’s more calm than he was before,” Cruz says, her own eyes glistening. “He’s letting it go that he won’t be able to see his family and his grandchildren.”

“They’re not thinking of separating families,” Cruz said of the people who have designed the deportation laws. “They’re not focusing on the people they should be focused on.”

Soon Cruz’s mother and sisters, and a gaggle of grandchildren arrive. Juárez-Hernández is lucky — of the 63 men being deported on this day, only a handful have family members who have come to see them off.

When the family enters the facility, they hand over the red bag to an ICE officer, who systematically unpacks and inspects its contents — the clothes carefully packed, the wallet, the family photos.

Eventually, the family is ushered into a visitation room where they must say their last goodbyes through a wall of glass.

Rosendo Juarez-Hernandez says goodbye to his family.
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His daughters quietly cry as they take their turns with the phone. His wife is inconsolable. Juárez-Hernández touches the glass where his grandchildren have pressed their faces and hands.

Persch and another volunteer with the Interfaith Committee are waiting nearby, hugging each family member and handing them a rosary and a small card that has information about halfway houses in Mexico where Juárez-Hernández can stay once he arrives.

Snatches of singing can be heard from outside — 20 men and women have gathered to pray for the detainees.

Hands and feet shackled, Juárez-Hernández is later led onto the darkened Department of Homeland Security bus, the windows blocked. From there, he will be flown to Louisiana, and then to Harlingen, Tex. where he will be walked across the border.  

Persch with two other volunteers with the Interfaith Committee of Detained immigrants are allowed to step inside the bus for a moment. Through a small opening in the Plexiglas that separates the reluctant passengers from the driver, they say a prayer of protection in Spanish, shouting to be heard at the back.

As the bus pulls away, Persch stands outside and watches silently until it is no longer in view.  She raises her arms in a blessing.

A volunteer with the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants after consulting with detainee.
Saverio Truglia for Al Jazeera America

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