In Good Faith

IGF047 In Good Faith - Sister Sharlet Wagner, Newcomer Network at Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington

Podcast Recorded: June 4, 2021
In Good Faith - Sister Sharlet Wagner, Newcomer Network at Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington
Description

Sister Maxine talks with Sister Sharlet, an immigration lawyer and executive director of the Newcomer Network, an innovative program that provides immigration legal services and connects people with other essentials such as food, health care, and employment. The Network is part of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. A full transcript of this podcast is available below. 

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Show Notes

01:48   Providence, travel, and Sister Sharlet's call to become a Catholic sister.

08:08  Discerning a call to the Sisters of the Holy Cross and to ministry as an immigration lawyer.

11:15  Ministry at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, California, and Holy Cross Ministries, in Utah. 

14:36  Stories of spirit and resilience from immigrants and asylum seekers.

21:19  Helping immigrants navigate social services.

27:16  Facts vs. fiction about immigrants and immigration.

36:24  Taking a faith-based approach to immigration.

39:32  Politics, policies, and what happens when there's a change in administration in the White House.

44:30  Recommended resources about immigration: 

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Transcript (Click for More)+

 Sister Maxine   

This is In Good Faith, a conversation about the experience of living faith in everyday life. I'm Sister Maxine and my guest is Sister Sharlet Wagner, Executive Director of the Newcomer Network at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. The Newcomer Network provides immigration legal services to people and connects them with other necessary services, such as food, housing and health care.

Sister Sharlet began her ministry at the Newcomer Network in June 2020, as Catholic Charities was launching the program. An immigration lawyer by profession, Sister Sharlet has worked on immigration issues in the U.S. and has provided legal services at detention centers. Prior to the Newcomer Network, she served for 10 years on the general leadership team of her congregation, the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She also served in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious from 2017 to 2020.

Sister Sharlet joins me today from the offices of the Newcomer Network in Montgomery County, Maryland. Welcome, Sister Sharlet, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today!

Sister Sharlet   

Thank you for inviting me. I'm happy to be with you.

Sister Maxine  

You're the executive director of the Newcomer Network, and you're an immigration lawyer. Before we talk about that organization and your work, let's talk about the journey that led you to this point. I understand in your early life your family moved around a lot, you lived in a lot of different places.

Sister Sharlet 

We did. My dad was a geologist, and we moved around as he took on different jobs in the company. We lived in many states in the United States. I was born in Nebraska. We lived in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Maine, and we lived in South Africa. So we moved around quite a bit before I joined the congregation.

Sister Maxine  

With so much travel, where in the world did you meet the congregation?

Sister Sharlet 

I met the congregation when I was in college. I went to the University of Texas at Austin. And I would say during my college years, I had a fairly typical time of questioning, rejecting my faith, then gradually coming back to it and making my faith my own. I became active in the Catholic Student Center there at UT and toward the end of my time at the university, I started thinking seriously about religious life. The question just kind of came to me one day, but I had so little experience of religious and I really didn't have a clue where to start looking. I didn't want to tell anyone I was thinking of becoming a nun because that was just a little too weird. So, I looked for Catholic newspapers in the university library: I thought maybe I'd find some information there, but that was a dead end. So I was really at a loss.

Then, as luck would have it, or maybe as Providence would have it, a woman religious came to the Catholic Student Center ministry team, and she was a Sister of the Holy Cross. She put out some vocations literature and I would kind of surreptitiously take a brochure if I thought nobody was looking, and then I finally worked up the courage to talk to her and to tell her that I was interested in religious life, and she was very supportive. She listened. She asked questions. She invited me to the convent for meals. She gave me vocations information about a whole variety of congregations and really supported me in my questioning and discerning.

And as I looked into religious life and read the literature, a lot of congregations actually started sounding the same to me. I didn't have the experience to differentiate. I didn't understand what was meant by charism. But I decided to join Holy Cross for a few reasons I liked the sisters I had met, I felt at home and comfortable with them. And I was attracted to the fact that the congregation was international, and that it had a family spirit. It was Providence acting, I believe.

Sister Maxine 

You listened to your heart and you followed it up. There's persistence in there.

Sister Sharlet 

Exactly! At the time, I thought “call” was the right word for it because it was a persistent call. It was my heart telling me there's something here, there's something I need to follow. I remember having a conversation with this sister. We went for a walk and I was saying “But how do I know? I want to know that this is right for me, that I'm called to religious life.” And she said, “Well, it's like going swimming,” which appealed to me because I loved to swim. She said, “You can look at the pool, you can walk around it, you can dip your toe in the water, but eventually you have to dive in or walk away, and you can't know until you dive in.” Something about that analogy struck me, and I knew I wanted to dive in and try it.

Sister Maxine  

I think many of us, as we were discerning prayed for some clear message like the writing on the wall. [Laughter]

Sister Sharlet 

[Laughter] Right!

Sister Maxine  

So after you entered the Sisters of the Holy Cross, you discerned a call to ministry as an immigration lawyer. It might not be the first thought that people have--that sisters would be immigration lawyers. How did you sense a call in that particular direction? What experiences or ideas were speaking to your heart?

Sister Sharlet  

That's a great question. You know, the beginning of that I would say was a class I took when I was a candidate in initial formation in the congregation. It was a college course on Catholic Social Teaching, and that course really engaged my mind and my spirit. I found myself wanting to use the brain that God gave me in a way that would promote justice and make a difference in people's lives. And I felt attracted to law because I felt like the law would allow me to do just that. So the initial attraction was to law, not necessarily immigration law. And it was during law school that I decided to focus my efforts on immigration law. I was attracted to that area of the law in part because I enjoy working with diverse peoples. I find it energizing. I really wanted to work with people from around the globe. But the primary draw for me was more spiritual, I would say, more religious.

It was rooted in my belief that as Christians and as religious, we belong on the margins, and as a Sister of the Holy Cross, we say we go where the need is. I felt that immigrants are the most marginalized and most voiceless segment of our society. That’s where I saw the need and so that's where I wanted to go.

Sister Maxine  

Do you think that your own experience, when you were a younger person, of going to unfamiliar places with unfamiliar ways was part of that?

Sister Sharlet   

I do believe so. Yes, having lived in South Africa, having moved and often been the new person, the new kid on the block, the new person in the neighborhood. I think that gave me empathy for immigrants. Certainly, what I experienced was not to the extent of what an immigrant experiences coming here, but I had some understanding of what it means to be in a strange place in a strange country, feeling just a little out of my depth. I think that also attracted me to working with immigrants and gave me a certain empathy for them.

Sister Maxine  

As a Catholic sister, of course, discernment and decision making aren't things we do by ourselves, but within the context of our community. Our communities, of course are great sources of encouragement and support. How did your community, the Holy Cross Sisters, help you take those next steps once you discerned that you may be called to law school?

Sister Sharlet   

My community was very supportive. Actually, I talked about South Africa and going as a young sister to Uganda. So there was that experience, and I had discerned this call to law school while I was in Uganda. I came back to the States to make final profession and was thinking about the future. And at that point, I spoke with leadership, and my approach was that I felt called to law school. I felt that this was something that I could do that would fit with the mission of the congregation. At the same time, I said to leadership, “I don't know all of the needs across the congregation. If you know of needs, you know of a place where you would prefer to have me, please tell me. And let's discern that, if there's not a need where you think I would be better suited, then I am asking to go to law school. And the congregation leadership was very supportive. We talked about why I felt called to this, what I would do, where I might live, where I might go to school, and leadership blessed it and said we see that this fits in with our mission, it fits with our ministry priorities, and so I had the support of leadership.

Sister Maxine  

Was it an influence that the congregation is international?

Sister Sharlet   1

Yes, and we as a congregation work with variety of people. I've been able to use my immigration law not only to serve immigrants in society but also within the congregation because we have sisters from a variety of countries. We have an international novitiate at our Motherhouse, and so I've been able to use my immigration law to help bring the novices to the United States--to help with student visas for those studying here, to help with tourist visas, so that's been a good help for the congregation.

Sister Maxine  

Where did you study law?

Sister Sharlet  

I studied at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. I knew I wanted to do a ministry with the poor, and that was my purpose in going to law school, so I looked for schools that I felt like would have a variety of opportunities near the law school for internships while I was studying, so I went there.

Sister Maxine  

Did you find any other Catholic Sisters in your classes?

Sister Sharlet   

No, and I think they [law school] wasn't sure what to do make of me!

Sister Maxine  

After you got your law degree, where was the first place that you ministered?

Sister Sharlet   

My first ministry was at the Central American Resource Center—CARECEN—in Los Angeles. The law school gave two fellowships each year to do public interest law, working with an organization, so I got a fellowship to work with CARECEN providing services at the Mira Loma detention center in Lancaster, California. I set up a program and did Know Your Rights presentations and then I represented clients before the immigration court. I did that for two years at CARECEN and at the end of the fellowship, I got a call from Holy Cross Ministries in Utah. Holy Cross Ministries is sponsored by my congregation and serves immigrants in Utah. They were just starting an immigration legal services program as part of Holy Cross Ministries and asked me to go out there. I was very happy to do that and then spent the next seven years at Holy Cross Ministries.

Sister Maxine

While you were there, what kinds of countries were your clients from? I don't really think of Utah as a big immigration center.

Sister Sharlet   

I heard that a lot while I was there. If I was traveling or talking to someone outside of the state and said I was an immigration lawyer and I was working in Utah, the typical response was, “Utah? There are immigrants in Utah?” Yes, in fact, there are quite a few immigrants. In the past, immigrants tended to be concentrated primarily in the Southwest and the southern border region, in large cities. That's really no longer the case. Immigrants are everywhere across the country, including in many rural areas. I found that immigrants are attracted to an area by the same things that attract U.S. citizens to an area. My clients in Utah would tell me that they came to Utah for jobs, and because it seemed like a good safe place to raise a family, they would say it's tranquilo, it's quiet, it's peaceful. That was an attraction for them.

Sister Maxine  

What were some of the countries your clients were from?

Sister Sharlet   

The majority of our clients were from Mexico. Many were from El Salvador, and we had Colombians and  Peruvians. Those were the main areas. We had some from Africa, but not many. Also, Utah was a refugee resettlement area, in Salt Lake City. So there were a number of refugees from Africa. We worked together with Catholic Charities there, and Catholic Charities did the refugee resettlement cases. We did other types of cases, so we didn't have very many of the refugees, but we had every other type of immigration case.

Sister Maxine  

As you worked with folks there, is there a personal story that you recall and that you can share with us, respecting confidentiality of course, that reflects some of your learnings, maybe something you have carried forward into your work now with the Newcomer Network?

Sister Sharlet   

I'd rather not share any stories about any particular clients, but what impressed me as I listened to their stories was the strength of the human spirit. I had a number of asylum cases where clients had suffered tremendously, many domestic violence cases, again with tremendous suffering. And I would listen to a story of so much suffering and think how is this woman or this man still able to function and get out of bed in the morning and care for their family and go to work. As I sat there and listened to them, I could see that they weren't simply functioning--they were still engaged, they were still looking for something better, they were still struggling, they hadn't checked out. They still laughed, they still spoke, still had faith in God and gratitude for the goodness of those who helped them. I was just so impressed by the strength of the human spirit--how can seeing so many examples of that strength of spirit not touch you!

Something I learned from my clients in Utah was the importance of looking for the good, and we don't have to look too far, it's not hard to find. I don't mean that in a Pollyanna-ish way: we can't close our eyes to the real evil that exists in the world, but we also can't let ourselves be overwhelmed by it. We can't buy into the lie that it's a dog-eat-dog world, and everyone's just looking out for number one, because there are multitudes of people motivated by faith or by humanity and a good heart who are working for a better world. If my clients, who had been through so much, can still believe in a better world, how could I not.

Sister Maxine  

I hear that deep belief in hope and that deep commitment to hope. I would imagine that for you, on those days when when it was especially tough, that spirit carried you forward as well.

Sister Sharlet   

It did, it did. My hope is rooted in God. It's rooted in my faith, and my faith that sustains me. I know at a deep level, that God is a God who stands with the oppressed, a God of justice, and that we are moving constantly toward what's better. It's easy to become depressed by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and the xenophobic hate that seems so strong at this time. But then I look at those who are fighting for justice for immigrants in the crowds of people who march together. And the volunteers and the donors who support programs like the Newcomer Network, and all of that gives me hope.

And I look at my asylum seekers. Those who come here seeking asylum are uniquely strong and hope-filled people. If you think about what it must take to leave your home, everything you're familiar with, to make a dangerous journey to a land where you don't speak the language, you don't have resources, you don't know what's going to happen. You have to be a person of hope to do that. I think asylum seekers are hopeful because they believe in a better world than what they've seen. They believe in the goodness of this country. They believe that if they can just tell their story to someone who will listen, they'll be allowed to make a new life here, and their faith sustains them as they make the journey and they go through that struggle.

Sister Maxine

Yes, in the in the midst of what would be great vulnerability, the amount of courage that that must take is astounding.

Sister Sharlet   

Yes, it is astounding.  

Sister Maxine  

We're going to pause for a brief break. After the break, we'll talk about Sister Sharlet's ministry as the Executive Director of the Newcomer Network in the Diocese of Washington. This is In Good Faith, a program of A Nun’s Life Ministry. We want to thank our sponsors and individual donors like you whose support makes the In Good Faith program possible. Please visit aNunsLife.org to make a donation or to become a sponsor of the ministry. We'll be right back.

[MUSIC]

Sister Maxine 

Welcome back. This is Sister Maxine of A Nun's Life Ministry and my guest, Sister Sharlet Wagner. Sharlet. Now, as Executive Director of the Newcomer Network, you are in the Washington D.C. area. Would you describe some of the needs in that area that the Newcomer Network responds to?

Sister Sharlet   

Sure. There are tremendous needs that exist in this area, as with immigrants all over the United States. The biggest need, of course, for the immigrants who come to us is immigration legal services. It's really a key for our clients. If they're undocumented, if they can get a work permit and get stable employment and be free of that constant fear of deportation, that makes all the difference in their lives. They come for immigration legal services, and they have many other needs as well. During COVID, what we've seen are tremendous basic survival needs: food and shelter, the need for employment. We also see the need that clients might not name, which is for counseling services. Many of our clients have suffered trauma in their home country or on the journey here or in the United States or all three. And there is a tremendous need for bilingual, culturally competent counselors that are affordable, and it's a huge shortage area, one that's going to continue to challenge us as we move forward.

Sister Maxine  

You encounter the folks who are coming in for legal services, and you become aware of other things that may be needed. How does the Newcomer Network address those needs? How do you provide those kinds of services that you were talking about, like health care, help with employment?

Sister Sharlet   

That's a great question. The Newcomer Network is really a new model and it enables us to try to address all of those needs. The Network came about thanks to a very generous multi-year investment from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation. The foundation has made an investment to develop this network. Clients come first to our immigration attorneys but they're often in a precarious situation and they have multiple other needs in addition to their immigration legal needs. So, I'm an immigration attorney by profession and earlier I knew my clients had needs beyond their legal needs, but I wasn't really equipped to address the needs. I didn't have the training or the time. In the Newcomer Network, our attorneys can address those needs by referring clients to navigators who work with clients. The navigators, that's a new program here at Catholic Charities. Immigration legal services has been around for a while: we have a tremendous immigration legal services program that does great work. What we've been building is the navigator program. Navigators can establish a trusting relationship with their client. The navigator is there to listen and to help the client identify goals: their work is client-centered and directed. It's not about what the navigators think the client's goal should be, it’s about what the client wants to accomplish.

Sister Maxine  

What would a couple of those goals be, for example?

Sister Sharlet   

 I'll give you an example of one young man who's an asylum seeker, and some of his goals. One was to get health care. He also had the goal of going to college, and he needed a driver's license so that he could drive to college. The navigator was able to work with him to get him enrolled in a health care option here that's designed for low income, so he now is with a clinic and has health care. She worked with him to do an application for a scholarship to community college and to try to enroll in the college, and then she worked with him to get some driving lessons so that he could learn to drive and get his driver's license, and so that's one example of some goals. I can tell you another goal. A woman, a

single mother with a daughter and also an asylum seeker, and her goals were health care for herself and her daughter, and employment. Again the navigator was able to work with her to apply to a special program here at the clinic for the underserved, and she and her daughter now are enrolled in health care. Then she referred her to an organization, a program at Catholic Charities, that helps with employment, and the woman was able to apply for caretaker position, and she's now a caretaker. The navigator helped her to get the TB test that she needed. Those are the types of goals and the work that the navigators are able to do. One advantage we have at Catholic Charities here in the Archdiocese of Washington is that it's a large agency, so we can refer clients to other programs within the agency. It's a wonderful network.

Sister Maxine  

Do the navigators also connect them with services outside of Catholic Charities if they’re not available within the organization?

Sister Sharlet   

Yes. A number of the organizations we've connected with are not within Catholic Charities. The Newcomer Network has, I call it, a three-legged stool. We have the immigration legal services as one leg, the navigators our second leg, and the third leg is partnerships. So we have a partnerships manager who's working on building partnerships with other agencies outside of Catholic Charities so that we can refer clients easily. We try to identify the gap and services. Our clients have needs that we can't meet at Catholic Charities, then we try to identify organizations that can meet those needs and refer the clients to those organizations. The other part of partnerships is the parishes. We're building partnerships with high-immigrant parishes so that we can offer the legal services and the navigator services in the parish, where the clients feel comfortable, where they already have a trusting relationship, and where it's close to where they're living so it's easy for them to get to and they feel at home.

Sister Maxine  

That [being in parishes] would also help you get the word out that these services exist.

Sister Sharlet   2

Yes, that's correct, that's exactly right. We're just starting with the pilot program, with two parishes. Part of what we're doing is writing some good announcements to get the word out that we're here and that we have the services available. I've talked with a number of pastors here in the parishes and the number one need that they mentioned is immigration legal services. That's a huge need everywhere. And then they also mentioned the need for the navigators, so I think we're really responding to a need with a unique type of a program.

Sister Maxine  

You know, some people might wonder, for the clients that you work with, well, couldn't they go through the federal [immigration] process? Like, why wouldn't they get in line with everybody else?

Sister Sharlet  

Yes, that's a great question. That's one of the wonderful myths that I hear: “You should just get in line and wait your turn.” My response is usually that they would love to get in line. That's all they're asking for is a line: give them a line to get into and they will be happy to do it. But there is no line for the vast majority of immigrants in this country. Either there's no line at all for most of them or, if there is a line, it's not a meaningful line: it's a 15-to-20-year line. So getting in line is really not an option when there's no line. That's what we're trying to do with comprehensive immigration reform--create those lines, and I guarantee you people will be jumping in line.

Sister Maxine  

As we look at the model of the Newcomer Network, you've got the immigration legal services and the navigators. Do you do stay in close communication with one another in service to the client? How does that work?

Sister Sharlet   

Yes, that's what I think makes the Newcomer Network somewhat unique. There are a lot of Catholic Charities around the country that offer immigration legal services and are doing great work with that. And a lot of other organizations are doing great work with immigration legal services. Many of those organizations also have social services. What's somewhat unique is our team approach: that the immigration legal services and navigators work as a team. It’s attorneys and navigators working together holistically to address the needs of the clients who come to us.

As an immigration attorney, I know that stronger social outcomes lead to stronger legal outcomes. I think that's what is going to make this program successful. We are still in the pilot phase--we just started in November. But I think this program is going to have a tremendous amount of success, and I hope it can be a model for other organizations--teams of attorneys and social workers working together.

Sister Maxine  

You mentioned it's in the pilot phase. How many individuals or families have you helped thus far and at what time will the pilot phase end?   

Sister Sharlet   

First with how many we've helped: we started seeing clients in November 2020, and we've got right now about 70 families enrolled in the navigator program. The immigration legal services program is much bigger than that, so it's a subset of those who come for legal services who are referred to the navigator. The pilot phase will continue through August, and around July or August, we're going to be assessing and seeing what worked well, what didn't work so well, what do we need to tweak and are there any major changes we need to make. Then we'll continue to unfold the program and bring on more navigators. The grant from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation really is a very generous investment and it's going to enable us to continue to grow the program and to hire additional navigators and attorneys.

Sister Maxine  

That's wonderful, that it helps you to develop a model that may help people around the country.

Sister Sharlet   

That is my hope, as we come out of the pilot phase and begin to grow the program. I hope that we can take our learnings and share them with other organizations around the country. I do know there are some that are doing something similar. I believe Catholic Charities New Orleans has something very similar. This is kind of a growing area. I've been hearing more and more about immigration legal services and social services working together. We've got a ways to go with it but organizations are starting to look at that and to realize the advantages of having the two programs working as a team.

Sister Maxine  

As the executive director, there's also administrative layers of work that go with that. What would your typical day look like, if there is such a thing?    

Sister Sharlet   

It's a lot of meetings. I spend a great deal of time on Zoom and on Teams, meeting with the managers. I'm fortunate to have wonderful managers for immigration legal services and for the navigator program, and for the partnerships program. They are committed and competent and do amazing work. My work is not really dealing directly with the clients: the managers work with staff, and staff and managers work with the clients. That's something I very much miss--the direct contact with clients. I love hearing when the managers come to me with a success story because it reminds me that this is why I'm sitting at the computer and talking on Zoom and doing budgets and reports, because that's what's helping to enable these success stories and the work that our staff can do directly with the clients.

Sister Maxine  

Immigration, as you were talking earlier, is a huge issue here in the United States, as in many countries around the world. Here in the U.S., there’s a considerable amount of controversy. For example, some people might say, “Why would you bring in more people who are going to possibly exacerbate the problems that are already here at home? Things like poverty or violence or crime or unemployment. Why welcome in people that may exacerbate these issues here?”

Sister Sharlet   

I do hear those questions, and my response tends to depend on the situation. First and most important to me is the faith-based response. Jesus said to us, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” So we see people fleeing violence and hunger and coming to us for refuge and being met at the border with cages and cruelty. How can we as people of faith possibly be okay with that? And of course the answer is that we can't. I point to the Old Testament where we hear, “When foreigners dwell with you and your land, do not oppress them. You shall treat the foreigner who lives with you no differently than the citizen born among you.” So, to me, our faith alone compels us to provide a welcome to those who seek refuge.

The second response outside of the faith-based response has to do with all the misinformation about immigrants and immigration. And you've just named some of it: that they’re bringing crime, they take our jobs, they're just coming here for welfare, they don't pay taxes. We know that these are untrue. And we have data-- well-documented data and study--to show that immigrants do pay taxes, that they're using public benefits at a rate that is far below that of U.S. citizens, in fact they commit less crime than citizens, and they create jobs. [It’s important to try] to fight back against some of that misinformation and deal in faith based and in facts.

The other one I hear is, My ancestors came here legally. I say, we're in a country of immigrants. [The reply,] well yes, but my ancestors came here legally. And I say, that's probably true, they probably did. But that's because at the time that most of our ancestors came, there was no immigration law. It's hard to break a law that doesn't exist, so of course they came legally. But if our current immigration laws had been in place when my own ancestors came, they probably would not have been able to come legally, and I hope they would have had the courage to come anyway, seeking a better life for themselves and their children and their grandchildren.

Sister Maxine  

And the generations of Catholic Sisters before us came with those waves of immigration to the United States, and so for us as Catholic Sisters, we run parallel to that.

Sister Sharlet   

Exactly. We have a long history of serving immigrants, of being immigrants ourselves. My own congregation came from France, and many of our sisters came from Germany and Ireland, and we came as immigrants to serve the immigrants in this country.

Sister Maxine  

You mentioned the faith-based approach. As you think about this kind of ministry, and many other Catholic sisters are involved in similar types of ministries, do you think that there is, in addition to the faith-based approach something distinctive that Catholic sisters bring to this ministry, to this area of human need. Does being a Catholic sister make a difference?

Sister Sharlet   

I believe it does. You alluded to Catholic sisters serving in this type of ministry, and you're spot on of course. The response of Catholic sisters has been tremendous in this area. Catholic Charities USA recently put out an appeal through LCWR [Leadership Conference of Women Religious] for help at the border, and already more than 200 sisters have responded. In addition to volunteers, I know that women religious are sending money and sending supplies. Some have opened their convents to asylum seekers in need of a place to stay. And that's just in response to the latest crisis. Women religious have been volunteering for years and have been working for years for immigration reform. They stood outside of detention centers, protesting conditions and protesting deportations. They've served as immigration lawyers and representatives in the immigration court. They've written letters.

I think the situation of immigrants is close to the heart of Catholic sisters in this country and maybe because immigration really strikes at the heart of who we are as Christians and what we believe--that all people are equally children of God. God doesn't make any illegal people, and we must respect the dignity of all who all are invited to have life and have it to the full. So, yes, I think those are perhaps some of the reasons that Catholic sisters have had such a tremendous response to the needs of immigrants.

Sister Maxine 

We'll take a moment for a brief break. This is In Good Faith, a program of A Nun’s Life Ministry. We want to thank our sponsors and individual donors like you whose support makes the In Good Faith program possible. We'll be right back.

[MUSIC]

Sister Maxine  

Welcome back. You're here with Sister Maxine of A Nun’s Life Ministry and my guest, Sister Sharlet Wagner, Executive Director of the Newcomer Network. Sister Sharlet is a Sister of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame, Indiana.

Sharlet, as you look at the area of immigration, more broadly over the years, do you see a shift when there are different administrations in the United States? A shift between administration that affects immigration policy?

Sister Sharlet   

I do see a shift. I don't want to overstate the shift, because, in my time as an immigration lawyer, I have repeatedly been hopeful for some broad immigration reform and repeatedly been disappointed. Part of the issue with immigration reform is that it's not the administration who can bring it about. The administration certainly has something to say, and put its weight behind it, but it's Congress. And if we can't get something through Congress, the president can't sign anything into law. I haven't seen huge changes in immigration law because bills have not been enacted by Congress.

What I do see is a shift in how the law is executed, and that is up to the administration. For example, under the previous administration, there was a tremendous increase in cruelty and the way the law was applied and executed. With the current administration, there's a shift in that. There are certain things the administration can do, and is doing, as far as admissions at the border, as far as how children are treated, as far as DACA, as far as deportations, and how the law is enforced. So we see the shift in those policies, [but ]we haven't seen what's really needed, [which] is the shift in the law. That's longer lasting: a shift in the policies changes with each administration, and immigrants become a political football to be kicked back and forth.

Sister Maxine  

When you think about public knowledge and public perception over the years, do you think that has shifted? That people are more aware of the plight immigrants now?

Sister Sharlet   

I do think there is greater awareness. I see kind of a paradox of greater xenophobia, or perhaps phobia that's just more out there. You see the hatred, you hear the hatred, hear the vilification of immigrants in really astounding ways. But I also see, perhaps because of that, a greater awareness of the plight of immigrants and greater activity and willingness to take action on the part of the public and those who are sympathetic to the plight of immigrants.

Sister Maxine  

If you look down the road in, let's say, five or maybe ten years, whether it's in your own work there at the Newcomer Network or more broadly in this country, what shifts do you most hope to see--legal or political or in the hearts and minds of people?

Sister Sharlet  

Yes, you know, it's all of the above. My first response is a change in the law. We badly need comprehensive immigration reform. If we can't get comprehensive immigration reform, at least something for the Dreamers, and those who have TPS [Temporary Protected Status]. And so that is one of my hopes. And the second hope would be an increasing shift in the hearts and minds of people. I tend to think there are some who are just so anti-immigrant and closed to anything that there's really no talking with them: the heart and mind aren't open to being shifted. But I also believe there's a large body of people whose hearts and minds would be open to being shifted, and who are touched not as much by the facts and figures, because I don't know that they necessarily believe the facts and figures, but by the stories. If they can come to know some immigrants and come to know the stories, then they can be touched by that.

Sister Maxine  

You mentioned separating facts from fiction and hearing stories: are there some resources for our listeners who desire to learn more about immigration, who want to be involved in some way. Would there be some really good resources that you would suggest?  

Sister Sharlet   

Yes, there are. There are some great websites, and one of them is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Conference has a Justice for Immigrants campaign. The Conference of Catholic Bishops has been very good about speaking out for immigrants. The Justice for Immigrants campaign website--if you just Google “Justice for Immigrants,” that has a wealth of resources as well as suggestions for how to get involved. Another great website is the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services. Just Google LIRS, or Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services. They also have a website that's full of resources and suggestions for action. LIRS also has a forum complete with opportunities to volunteer in a whole variety of areas. That can be very helpful for someone who wants to volunteer, who wants to do something more. Other possibilities for involvement--volunteer at your local Catholic Charities. Many Catholic Charities have a volunteer engagement office and invite volunteers to help serve in a variety of areas. So Catholic Charities or another organization serving immigrants. Lobby your congressional representative. Join in a march. Educate yourself on political candidates’ stance toward immigration and then vote. I can't say that enough: vote, vote, vote!

Sister Maxine  

I'll be sure to put links to those resources in the show notes of this podcast so that people can go there and click on those links. Then, for people who live in local communities where they encounter folks who are immigrants, is there anything they could do just to reach out?

Sister Sharlet   

Sure, yes. When you encounter immigrants, do what you would do with a U.S. citizen: introduce yourself, ask about them, how they're doing. Get to know them, and gradually you may discover some needs that you can help out with. Many immigrants are perfectly willing and happy and eager to be friends and to come to know U.S. citizens, and to come to know the community and be inserted into the community. So if you're able to reach out and you find what some of the needs are, you can help out in whatever ways--it might be tutoring English, might be helping their kids with some English skills. If they're brand new to the country, maybe helping them navigate--do what our navigators do--how do I register my kids in school, how do I open a bank account, how do I apply to file an income tax return. Whatever the need might be.

Sister Maxine  

Sharlet, we've reached the end of our time today. I want to thank you so much for joining me, and I want to thank you for the work that you and everyone at the Newcomer Network does on behalf of so many people in great need.

Sister Sharlet  

Thank you very much for inviting me and thank you for the wonderful ministry you do as well.

Sister Maxine  

In Good Faith is a production of A Nun’s Life Ministry, helping people discover and grow in their vocation by engaging questions about God, faith, and religious life. This program is made possible through the grace of God, and the support of the sponsors of A Nun’s Life Ministry and you, our listeners. Visit us at aNunsLife.org. God bless!

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