Sister Maureen Kelleher

Sister Maureen Kelleher is both a nun and a lawyer. She works with Central American immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. She will speak at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County on Jan. 13.

Sister Maureen Kelleher likes to tell stories.

Most of the stories she tells these days are about the terrifying conditions that cause individual families and children to leave their homes in other countries and come to America, where they are not particularly welcome.

In addition to being a Catholic nun since 1960, Kelleher is also an attorney specializing in immigration.

She will share some of these immigration stories at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 13 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Forrest Nelson Blvd. in Port Charlotte.

“I’m going to be telling stories, because I think there’s a lot of research that shows — this is how we learn best, not through statistics,” she said.

Kelleher started out as a New York girl, not far from the city in Pelham. After becoming a nun, she worked as a teacher in the city. In that work, she saw many children of immigrants.

“When I knew I was going to go to law school, I knew I was going to study immigration,” she said.

She finished law school and moved to Immokalee, which is home to many Central American immigrants who come to work in agriculture, in landscaping, in hotels and restaurants and in other low-paying jobs.

As a lawyer, she joined Florida Rural Legal Services until federal laws in the 1990s barred public funds from assisting non-eligible citizenship applicants from receiving taxpayer-funded services. She and some colleagues formed their own nonprofit now called Americans for Immigrant Justice.

Her specialty now is unaccompanied children — frequently teenagers who have been detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Kelleher said she realizes she’s preaching to the choir in her presentations, but she wants to speak with people who are willing to take action.

Even with people who oppose relaxing immigration, she said, there is an understanding that immigrants are the stalwart foundation of the American work ethic. People on the opposite side of the political fence from her, will sometimes ask her for special help, she said.

“They say, ‘Can you do something for the guy that is doing my grass and his kids? They are very hard working.’”

But the fear sets in that immigrants will take jobs, or depress wages for American citizens, she said. And there is fear that America is changing so that European heritage may someday be less common, she said.

With a receptive audience, Kelleher said, she will issue a call to action.

“There’s more that every one of us could be doing, and that’s why I like to talk to groups like that.”


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