A call to Mercy: Reflections from an international conference on immigration

NOTE: Karen Donahue, RSM (Chicago) and Ana Siufi. RSM (Argentina) were among 40 Sisters and Associates of Mercy who gathered in St. Louis from Jan. 13-19 to learn from each other about the reality of migration and immigration, and to move to a recommendation that could be put into action by every Sister, Associate and Companion of Mercy. Following are their reflections.

Karen Donahue, RSM

Our Direction Statement calls us to act in solidarity with one another as we embrace our multicultural and international reality took on new dimensions for me when I participated in the Institute International Justice Conference in St. Louis.

This gathering brought together sisters and associates from all parts of the Institute – South America, Central America, the Caribbean, East Asia and North America. Our focus was immigration and how we as an international Institute can intensify our response to this Critical Concern identified at our Fourth Institute Chapter in June 2005.

The harsh reality of immigration law became evident to us in the first hours of the conference when we learned that an associate from Guatemala was refused a visa to enter the United States. In September, she had traveled six hours to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City to apply for a visa. The process entails an interview and a fee of $100 U.S. dollars. After the interview she was told to return to the Embassy on December 12, for a second interview (and another $100 fee). Her application was refused – no reasons given.

During the week, we heard stories of people in transit from all over the world.

Lack of employment is a major reason people leave their home countries. One woman from the Philippines made the painful decision to migrate because her husband’s poor health left her as the sole support of the family. She had to take out loans to pay the costs of travel and fees as well as her husband’s medical expenses, and when a pre-departure physical revealed that she was nine-weeks pregnant, she was told to have an abortion or lose the job opportunity. She had an abortion out of sheer desperation.

In the United States, the immigration debate focuses on the impact of persons entering the country. In other parts of the world, though, the loss of skilled people is having a detrimental effect on national economies and the ability of countries to provide basic services such as health care and education. For example, health care facilities in the United States and United Kingdom actively recruit nurses in places like Jamaica and the Philippines, leaving local hospitals and clinics dangerously understaffed.

One sister, with a tinge of anger in her voice, described how the new U.S. Embassy in her country has no waiting area or seating for persons coming to apply for visas. People are forced to stand in line outside, under all weather conditions, even pouring rain. There are no parking facilities either. This lack of basic amenities is seen as an affront to the dignity of the local people. She also recounted a conversation with an embassy official who told her that decisions about granting or withholding visas were purely arbitrary.

Our week together in St. Louis made me realize that I was only looking at a small slice of the immigration question. I am grateful to our sisters and associates for opening my eyes to the conditions that force people to make wrenching choices that have such negative consequences for both themselves and their countries.

Ana Siufi, RSM

I arrived in St. Louis 40 hours late as flights were cancelled because of bad weather. This served as a prelude to the Justice meeting concerning the topic of immigration. Providentially, we were two from Argentina. This helped us to confront the sensation of abandonment and isolation in such an area as airports because of our little knowledge of English, and not knowing when we would ever arrive at the meeting, and if we would ever recover our baggage. This experience allowed us to share the anguish, isolation and solitude which accompany immigrants in their attempt to reach their destination.

It was worth the effort arriving and sharing as sisters from the various countries described the awful situation of immigrants and migrants, making it clear that the neo-liberal globalization excludes and eliminates millions and obliges them to look beyond for a more decent life far from their country and culture, and exposing them to death in the waters on in the desert or such dangers as: persecution, legal obstacles, abuses and labor or sexual exploitation that were constantly mentioned.

I was deeply impressed by a fact that changed my beliefs, due to the misinformation of the media, about the volume of money sent back home to their loved ones:

The remittance of thousands of millions of dollars to our impoverished countries represents more than any external international aid. In other words, the poor, through their work, sometimes so exploited that they might as well be slaves, share all they can with their families back home.

I was deeply touched by a reflection of Marilyn Lacey, who spoke to us about the spirituality of hospitality, based on her experience of helping out in the refugee camps of the Sudan and other places. She shared with us her love and commitment with the most vulnerable and hungry in a world which has the means to avoid such pain, but squanders and monopolizes it for a few.

There is much to say, and I don’t want to make it longer. May this meeting serve to encourage us to continue in the struggle in the spirit of Mercy, so that each citizen could be assured of his/her rights in his/her country and home and not obliged to leave them in search of other horizons.

Ana’s reflection first appeared in the January 2007 issue of the CCASA Newsletter.

Questions for reflection

1.Do I ever think about why people choose to leave their home countries?
2.How is my life made more comfortable by the labor of immigrants?
3.What can I do ease the plight of immigrants? 

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