Advocate speaks on her experiences with immigrants
By Jeannine M. Pitas
DUBUQUE — “How many of you have at least one grandparent who came to this country from another or spoke a language other than English?” With this question, Rhonda Miska, an immigrant justice activist and candidate with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, opened her Jan. 23 presentation at St. Raphael Cathedral.
At least half the hands in the room went up. “What about great-grandparents?” she asked. Nearly all the hands in the room were raised.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph knew what it meant to leave their country and become migrants,” she stated. “With this in mind, we should reflect on the images and words we use to describe our fellow humans. Do we humanize or dehumanize them? Do we call them aliens and illegals, or workers and families?”
Miska, who has worked as a legal assistant with Americans for Immigrant Justice in a federal immigration court in Miami, Florida and currently serves as a legal interpreter for immigrant children in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, stated that immigration law is confusing to say the least.
“It’s kind of like a crazy quilt with laws placed on top of one another,” she said. “Those of you who have participated in the Archdiocese’s Immigration Simulation (organized by Catholic Charities) will know how difficult it is.”
Focusing specifically on minors, she spoke of various types of legal status someone can have: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for abused children, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for children who were brought to the U.S. at a young age, the T visa for human trafficking victims and the U visa for crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement, and Asylum for those who because of race, political belief, sexual orientation or other identity markers have a credible fear of return to home country.
“There are many mixed status families, where, for example, a father is undocumented, a mother is a citizen and the children are citizens. The rhetoric of ‘Send them all back’ means separating families,” Miska explained.
She added that there is currently no path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants – a reality that many groups, including U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – would like to see changed.
Miska then spoke in more detail about the main population she serves through her work with Catholic Charities: Unaccompanied Alien Children, or UACs, who are under eighteen with no status and no parents or legal guardian able to provide care. Often times, these young people have traveled from the most violent part of Central America, the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, through Mexico, risking great danger from unscrupulous smugglers, cargo trains they use as transport, and the challenge of crossing the border itself through inhospitable landscapes like the Arizona desert.
“There is a complex history of violence in the region these migrants are coming from,” Miska said. “During the 1970s and 1980s, some migrants fleeing U.S.-funded wars settled in Los Angeles, where they formed gangs like the infamous MS13. They were then criminalized and sent back, and they brought the gangs with them. U.S. policy has helped to create the reality that these children are fleeing.”
Miska reminded attendees of the church’s stance on migration in light of Catholic Social Teaching. She quoted from the book of Exodus:
“You were once outsiders…So you must show care and concern for the stranger” (Exodus 22:2). She also reminded us that Francis’ first trip as pope was to a Mediterranean island where migrants have died, and he has also visited the U.S.-Mexico border. She also mentioned St. Pope John Paul II’s call to solidarity: “We need a firm, persevering determination to commit to the common good of each and all. We truly are responsible for one another.”
Miska then informed the audience of ways they can get involved in migrant justice activism locally. Some organizations include Crossing Borders, led by Sister Mary McCauley, BVM (firstname.lastname@example.org), Dubuque for Refugee Children, led by R.R.S. Stewart (email@example.com) the Presentation Lantern Center (www.presentationlanterndbq.org), which offers English and citizenship test preparation classes in the millwork district, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
Mirdza Erika Berzins, a retired publisher and librarian currently seeking to enter the church through the RCIA program, found the talk inspiring and informative.
“There is currently no path to citizenship for undocumented migrants; if undocumented, they can get caught at any time,” she said. “I know people right here in Dubuque who are undocumented, and I plan to get involved in efforts to help them. This presentation brought a very human side to the migration stories we hear, and I hope that the archdiocese will hold more events of this type to get more people involved.”
For Miska, even more important than political action is what Dorothy Day calls a “revolution of the heart,” which she thinks we all need.
“When you hear language that does not respect migrants’ humanity, remember that many of them are children,” she said. “Would you want the children in your lives to be spoken of that way?”
She concluded with a personal anecdote from her work in Miami.
“I was preparing a 15-year-old for his court date and explaining the procedures,” said Miska. “Once I finished, he asked one question. I was expecting him to ask something practical about the process. Instead, he said, ‘When I go into the courthouse, will Jesus be with me?’ To that, I could only reply, ‘Yes, Jesus will be with you.’”
Photo: Rhonda Miska, a candidate for the Sinsinawa Dominicans, speaks at St. Raphael Cathe-dral Jan. 23. (Photo by Jeannine M. Pitas)