Just after sunrise on a below-freezing January morning, a huddle of people gathered outside a nondescript Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building in the Chicago suburb of Broadview for a vigil the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants (ICDI) has been holding every week for more than 11 years.
About a dozen people huddled in close to block out the freezing wind and to pray, sing, and encourage one another in the slow-moving battle for immigration reform. Attendees prayed for comfort for the immigrants facing deportation and for peace from the ICE officers overseeing them. They also prayed for actions from the politicians who didn’t seem to be doing much to solve the problem.
Then, someone cursed.
The mid-vigil expletive was a direct quote from President Donald Trump, allegedly uttered hours earlier during a discussion with lawmakers about protecting immigrants from Africa and countries like Haiti and El Salvador.
The mix of Catholic parishioners, clergy, and activists shook their heads in a mix of sadness and disgust. Then Sister JoAnn Persch, a Chicago nun with the Sisters of Mercy, gripped the portable microphone and gave a firm rebuke of the president’s characterization.
“These are not ‘shithole countries,’ ” she said, her voice breaking. “These people are our brothers and our sisters — human beings with dignity.”
Together with her fellow Sister Pat Murphy, these Sisters of Mercy have spent years fighting for the dignity, rights, and liberation of detained immigrants.
The two officially founded ICDI in 2007 after meeting Roy Berg, a local immigration attorney, as he was holding a vigil outside the Broadview facility. The vigil alternates between interfaith prayers and a recitation of the Catholic rosary, though people of any faith are invited to join on any given Friday.
Persch and Murphy, who this year will turn 83 and 89, respectively, have braved a decade of early morning wake-ups to hold vigil in the freezing cold, driving rain, and oppressive summer heat. Berg says the coldest day they’ve ever faced was nearly 20 below, at which point everyone prayed in their car.
The nuns also travel a circuit of jails and ICE facilities around Illinois and Wisconsin, visiting detained immigrants and praying with them in their final hours as they face deportation — and often separation from their families.
Over the years they’ve successfully pushed for an Illinois law that grants detainees access to spiritual counsel, cultivated the trust of ICE officials, and won the hearts of United States senators. They’ve even managed to spare a few undocumented immigrants from deportation through courtroom advocacy.
But for all their tireless efforts, they can’t help but look at the current immigration landscape and see the challenges still growing: Anti-immigrant rhetoric has grown uglier in the past few years and immigration arrests surged 42 percent in the first year of the Trump administration, which made immigration crackdowns a key policy priority (deportations dipped slightly last year due to fewer illegal border crossings from Mexico). Executive orders issued by the Trump administration, meanwhile, have pushed for expedited removal, swiftly deporting undocumented immigrants after arrest before they can plead their case before an immigration judge.
A few weeks after the January vigil, while sitting in the office she shares with Murphy on Chicago’s far South Side, Persch admits, “It’s kind of worn us out. They’ve taken away so many of the safeguards.”
The president’s September 2017 announcement that he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program added another layer of urgency to the sisters’ work. Immigrant children are now vulnerable to detention and deportation, too.
The waves of bad news for undocumented immigrants seemed to roll in weekly. By early January, the sisters were feeling frustrated, like they weren’t having enough of an impact.
“We felt we had to do something more,” Persch says.
And so, within weeks of that first freezing vigil of the new year, the sisters headed for Washington,
D.C. and wound up in the same situation as the undocumented immigrants: in handcuffs.
“Never Take No for an Answer”
“Sometimes I can’t believe what happened from showing up outside Broadview,” Persch says.
Since the first vigil in 2007 with the two nuns and Berg, the immigration attorney, average attendance ranges between 12 and 20 people each Friday, though at times its drawn as many as 80 (“The police have been called when there’s a lot of people; they’re afraid there’d be riots,” Murphy says).
ICDI’s corps of volunteers has ballooned from just four to more than 300. The weekly vigil is just one component of the ministry, but Berg says it’s an important one.
“Sister Pat [Murphy] refers to the vigil as the ‘spiritual engine’ that keeps it all going,” Berg says.
When they first mobilized, the nuns wanted to pray with the detainees inside the ICE processing site or on board the buses taking detainees to the airport, but they were turned away. Next they tried to get into the local jails where detainees were awaiting trial or final processing for deportation but were denied yet again.
“They’re very polite, but they’re very persistent,” Berg says. “People underestimate them at their own peril.”
Persch says the key to their eventual success was to be patient and respectful.
“But,” she adds, “We never take no for an answer.”
Determined to get access to the detainees, ICDI successfully lobbied Illinois lawmakers to pass the Access to Religious Ministry Act of 2008. The sisters, joined by an interfaith coalition, prompted a change to the law so that detained immigrants were guaranteed visits in jail for spiritual care.
ICDI volunteers visit four area jails on a weekly basis and bring detainees copies of the Bible, Torah, and Quran; provide updates from their families; or bring seasonally appropriate clothes for deportation. (Persch says immigrants detained in the summer wearing shorts can be deported in the winter with nothing additional to wear.) During every visit the volunteers check the commissary balance of each detainee and deposit a little cash if it’s too low.
Last year ICE moved the detention site from Broadview to Kankakee, Illinois. Though the new facility is larger and provides more room, detainees no longer get contact visits with family; even their final goodbyes are said via a live stream viewed from an iPad rather than in person.
“In the four jails we go to, we’re the only ones they have a contact visit with,” Murphy says. Even a simple hug or kind touch can prompt a detainee to “pour their guts out,” Murphy says. “They cry.”
The sisters say ICDI plays a watchdog function for the detention sites, as they’re among the few outsiders who can access the jails and talk with detainees. Their presence has also changed the way the ICE officers behave, at least in the nuns’ presence.
“We can see the difference in the way they treat the detainees,” Persch says. During some ICDI visits, the guards will leave the room entirely instead of looming nearby.
Murphy says it took ICE a few years to trust ICDI, but they came around when they saw the nuns weren’t making problems during their visits.
Ricardo Wong, the Chicago Field Director for ICE, told Persch he likes to work with ICDI because “they don’t just holler at us.” The sisters will single out an ICE officer for praise if he or she is particularly helpful, and each week in the jails or on the buses they make sure to pray for the officers as well as the immigrants.
Immigration officials have since told the sisters that their presence on the deportation buses has had a calming effect on the detainees as they embark on their deportation journey.
Elena Segura, who directs the office of Immigrant Affairs for the Archdiocese of Chicago and works closely with ICDI, recalls what those deportation days were like before ICDI made inroads with ICE officials.
When detainees were still processed out of the Broadview facility, families would arrive to deposit their loved one’s luggage, maybe give them some money, and say their goodbyes in the two or three minutes allotted by the ICE officers.
Segura says back then the officers would turn families away even if they arrived a minute or two late.
“I’ll never forget one older lady, maybe in her 70s, who wanted to say goodbye to her son and was given one minute,” Segura recalls. “She thought that was just the introduction time but learned that was actually it — that minute. She fainted in my arms and fell to the floor. She couldn’t believe that was it.”
A Show of Moral Courage
With a deadline for the expiration of DACA looming, the sisters were figuring out how to make a bigger statement to show support for the young DREAMers when they received a phone call from Faith in Public Life, an activist network of progressive evangelicals.
About a year earlier the group had given Persch and Murphy awards for demonstrating “moral courage” through their work.
They first called Murphy and asked, “Do you still have moral courage?”
The organization was rallying faith groups from across the country and needed clergy members who were willing to risk arrest peacefully protesting Congress for a clean DREAM Act, or a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants free of regressive provisions like a border wall or interior enforcement.
Neither Persch nor Murphy are strangers to being arrested for civil disobedience, and they made plans to head to Washington, D.C. for the Catholic Day of Action With Dreamers.
On February 27, 2018 Persch and Murphy gathered with 100 other clergy and laypeople on a grassy plot outside the Russell Senate building for a press conference that drew media and several lawmakers, including Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, who the sisters say has become a vocal supporter of their work.
When the conference was finished, Persch and Murphy headed for the rotunda. Clad in armbands and large placards of the Virgin of Guadalupe that read “Catholics for DREAMers,” the two stood with dozens of other protesters who were praying the rosary and singing.
After refusing the police’s calls to move, officers began warning the nuns they should cede their ground or be hauled off to one of the waiting police vans.
“Do you want to be arrested?” an officer asked Persch.
“Yes, we do,” she told them. “The officer took our arm, and we each had our own escort.”
“It was like going to the prom,” Murphy adds. “We even stopped to get our picture taken.”
The officer escorting Persch worried she might fall down the stairs with her hands cuffed behind her back. When she said she couldn’t walk the stairs handcuffed, he walked her to the elevator. Once the doors closed he asked, “Are you a nun?”
When Persch said yes, he whispered, “Now I have to go to confession, arresting a nun.”
The sisters were processed, complete with fingerprinting and a pat down, and stripped of their belongings, save for their IDs and bail money.
Once they posted bail, their belongings were returned to them in plastic bags.
“That kind of tickled us, because when we got released, it’s like the immigrants who come out with a plastic bag with their property,” Persch says. “We were trying to think about [the immigrants]. The police were being nice to us because we’re old, white nuns. But they might not have been if we were a different race.”
John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, was among the 40 people arrested along with Persch and Murphy.
Several weeks after the arrest, he still marvels at the sisters’ energy.
“They run circles around people half their age,” he says. “They’ve been out in the streets raising holy hell.”
But while he’s impressed by how tireless they are, Gehring says the sisters aren’t just hardworking, they’re truly gifted politically.
“What’s interesting about them is that they’re comfortable lobbying in a state senator’s office and visiting a prison,” he says. “You don’t always find people who are comfortable moving through both the halls of power and an immigrant detention center with as much grace as they do.”
Like the ICE officers in Illinois grateful for the sisters’ charitable view of their work — even if they disagree with it — Gehring says Persch and Murphy are rare figures in the immigration battle who have been able to transcend political divides.
“They’re not just screaming and yelling at Republicans or slapping Democrats on the back,” he says. “They’re holding everyone to a higher standard.
The Work Isn’t Done
Persch and Murphy returned to Chicago with their spirits buoyed by the Catholic Day of Action despite the fact Congress had failed to pass a bill to protect immigrant youth. Congress inaction meant the coming weeks, months — and likely years — would include more 4 a.m. drives to the ICE facility in Kankakee. More early mornings in inclement weather outside Broadview. More arrests.
But Persch says the only way she can see is forward.
“We’re Sisters of Mercy, this is one of our things,” she says of their immigrant activism. “We can’t not do it.”
Murphy has had cancer and radiation; twice Persch’s bone marrow ceased production. Both women are older and leaner than when they started their current push via ICDI. But they look back and say the past decade of work has transformed them.
Murphy says she knows she’ll have to stop someday, but the steady stream of new souls — each with new stories, hopes, and fears — keeps her going.
“The pain and sorrow of the immigrants is always new,” Murphy says. “The players change.”
To rev their spiritual engine, they look forward to the next Friday morning vigil, where they’ll pray for the detained immigrants and their families, the ICE officers, the president, and the lawmakers who have let them down again.
Persch says she used to think that prayer could change things but eventually realized that idea was incomplete. She repeats a quote she comes across now and then, alternately attributed to St. Ignatius and St. Augustine: “Pray as if all depends on God; work as if all depends on you.”
Kim Bellware is a Chicago-based freelance reporter covering politics, crime, and culture. Reprinted from U.S. Catholic (July 2018), a monthly magazine that puts faith in the context of everyday life.