My Perspective: A conversation with Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Theresa Keller

sister theresa keller portrait
Sister Theresa Keller

We cannot continue to do what we are doing at the border and expect different results,” shares Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Theresa Keller.

As a member of the FSPA Encuentro@theBorder Team, a collaboration of the congregation with organizations who are together answering the call to hold sacred the dignity of each person, regardless of origin, Sister Theresa is impassioned to serve. She recently sat down with the following questions about her ministry of immigration reform and offers reflection.

What inspires you to work in social justice?

For more than 30 years, I have served as an educator, primary and urgent care nurse practitioner, grant writer and organizer. Most of my professional life has involved working within the Federally Qualified Health Center system for community or county clinics. The mandate of a FQHC/county clinic is to assure access to medical services for vulnerable populations regardless of legal immigration status or ability to pay. Large pockets of Iowa have migrant workers from other countries. Many migrants have legal work status in the form of work visas. They are essential workers in the meat packing industry, agricultural farming and other factory work. There are also migrants in the United States who move from place to place, including ag-farm workers, but mostly within the construction and transportation fields. While working in primary care for over 40 years, I had the opportunity to serve many of these good people and their families.

My religious community inspired me to work in social justice. From the time of my entrance into the congregation in 1977, and all of these years later, the women I vow my life with have responded to the call of peace and justice. This ministry is in our bones. I’ve ministered in many international, national and local social justice circles. My skill sets as an adult educator, public health worker and policy advocate, in addition to the relationships I’ve cultivated in the communities I’ve served, fit organically with social justice work. My time at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minneapolis in 2007 provided support and helped me to follow a path of community organization. My recent training within the Gamaliel National Network, an organization missioned “to empower ordinary people to effectively participate in political, environmental, social and economic decisions affecting their lives,” reaffirmed my social justice ministry.

What is crucial to immigration reform, to justice for the people you have and continue to serve?

This is such a difficult question on so many political levels: personal, congregational, local and international
— the global community at large. Immigration reform has few champions in our political system, so change has to come from the grassroots level. The FSPA Encuentro@theBorder Team has networked with those working at the border, providing legislation education and direction for properly identifying individuals as migrants, asylum seekers or refugees.

As supporters of FSPA’s social justice mission, how can we begin to make an impact on the immigration/migration crisis today?

Educate, educate, educate yourself about the issues facing immigrants in the U.S. and the world. I would recommend that each person begin by reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Catholic social teaching practices about welcoming the stranger and then work with a justice group that is grounded in creating change in the immigration system. Follow news outlets that give more than just a sound bite about the status of legislation that affects the life and death of those seeking refuge here. Review how climate change has impacted immigration, how political systems are coping or not coping and how faith-based organizations are supporting migrants. Follow and support organizations like NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, the Kino Border Initiative and Franciscan Action Network to better understand how to impact necessary changes. Do not sensationalize news bites but be a change agent in your community. Talk to your local, state and national legislators. It does not take much to make a phone call. Provide consistent assistance when called upon, financial or otherwise.

What do you envision for the future of the immigration crisis in the U.S.?

I am a firm believer that what we do today will be lived out in the future of tomorrow. Doing the same thing over and over again — trying to fit the jagged pieces of a broken immigration system together — just leaves us with a lot of disjointed fragments. My response to the immigration policy failure in the United States of America as a Catholic sister is similar to the abolition movement. The practice of holding asylum seekers in detention while separating children from their parents needs to be struck down, and many other practices of human rights violations must stop. Joining with other justice groups, talking with legislators, petitioning and acting on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops language on immigration and promoting immediate action will move to just immigration policy.

We cannot keep doing what we are doing at the border and expect different results. And I hope that, in the near future, what people see when they cross the border into this country reflects the Emma Lazrus sonnet inscribed on a plaque and placed on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty — “The New Colossus.”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows worldwide welcome: her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

What is immigration? Who are migrants? Who are asylum seekers? Who are refugees?

Before we start conversations about immigration reform with our neighbors or contact our legislators for action, we must begin with the correct context. Sister Theresa offers these definitions provided by NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice.

Immigration is the process of moving to a new country or region with the intention of staying and living there. People may choose to immigrate for a variety of reasons, such as employment opportunities, to escape a violent conflict, environmental factors, educational purposes or to reunite with family.

Asylum is a form of protection that allows individuals to remain in the United States instead of being removed (deported) to a country where they fear persecution or harm. Under U.S. law, people who flee their countries because they fear persecution can apply for asylum and become asylum seekers.

Refugee status is a form of protection that may be granted to people who meet the definition of refugee and who are of special humanitarian concern to the United States. Refugees are generally people outside of their country who are unable or unwilling to return home because they fear serious harm.

If you are moved to action, consider the following resources:


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