Every Friday morning around 4 a.m. Sister JoAnn Persch and her best friend of 53 years, Sister Pat Murphy, go to the Broadview immigration processing center to help and comfort dozens of undocumented immigrants about to be deported later that morning.
The nuns not only provide pastoral care, but they talk with immigrants and help them communicate with their families, which in many cases haven't been in touch with each other since the start of deportation proceedings.
They bring clothes and even bring family members. It's a sad experience, says Persch.
"We try to make a difference by being there and showing them (detainees waiting to be deported) that we care and that they are not just a number," Perch said.
Sister JoAnn and Pat, as most of the immigration lawyers, activists and immigration officials call them, are well beyond retirement age. But they show no signs of slowing down.
On Tuesdays, Persch, 78, and Murphy, 83, drive for more than two hours to the McHenry County Jail, which houses hundreds of immigrants facing the uncertainties of upcoming court dates and deportation.
At the detention center there, and in Broadview, they explain the deportation process and offer the addresses of several safe houses at the Mexican border where the deported can stay without fear of being kidnapped or robbed.
The nuns also help arrange visits for families of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees to the detention center.
And after sending off the immigrants on buses to O'Hare International Airport Fridays, the nuns host a prayer group outside the Broadview facility.
But their work doesn't end there. They accompany family members to immigration court and also provide aid to the families--often times the person facing deportation is the sole breadwinner.
They are also outspoken about their opposition to the record-breaking number of deportations under the Barrack Obama administration.
The nuns, who are part of Sisters of Mercy, have a long history of helping immigrants.
They became friends in 1959 when they met teaching at a Catholic school in Fox Point, Wis., but their commitment to protecting a vulnerable population and social justice has strengthen their bond.
In 1990, they founded Su Casa Catholic Worker, a shelter for immigrants fleeing civil wars in Central America. They prayed and cared for refugees and later became politically active and even got arrested protesting U.S. policy in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
By 1996, when the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed, Persch and Murphy shifted their focus.
The harsher immigration law meant more people were placed in detention centers and that worried them. They wanted to bring pastoral services to the detainees.
But making that happen was tougher than expected.
It took years of compromising with immigration enforcement officials, and lobbying in Springfield, to get legislation allowing all immigrant detainees held in Illinois jails the same access to clergy as other inmates. The law went into effect in 2009, but immigration officials kept delaying clergy access to the detainees, Persch said.
"They eventually had to let us in," she said. "We never gave up. We just couldn't."
Tags: Broadview, civil wars in Central America, deportation, Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, immigrant shelter, McHenry County Jail, Sister JoAnn Persch, Sister Pat Murphy, Sisters of Mercy, Su Casa Catholic Worker, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement