Sr. Kathleen Erickson, RSM, an active member of the OTOC Immigration Action Team, was featured in July 25th article by Erin Grace. Sr. Kathleen helped OTOC organize a July 6 workshop which featured Mercy Associate Aida Gonzalez Melana whom Sr. Kathleen met when she spent five weeks in San Pedro Sula, Honduras–the murder capital of the world. Professor Dave Weber of Creighton Law School and Kelly Tadeo Orbik of the Creighton Center for Service and Justice added their expertise to the meeting. Read the recent article below and see photos of Sr. Kathleen in action at the July 6 meeting. Sr. Kathleen is organizing a reading group to understand the social, economic and political history that explain why so many children are fleeing to the U.S. border. Contact OTOC for more information.
Grace: Nun bears witness in murder capital of the world–in Honduras– ‘a place that God forgot’
Posted: Friday, July 25, 2014 1:00 am By Erin Grace / World-Herald columnist
A white-haired nun from Omaha recently returned from the murder capital of the world.
At a time when the children of Honduras are coming north, Sister Kathleen Erickson traveled south.
The 73-year-old Sister of Mercy spent five weeks primarily in San Pedro Sula, a city of about 800,000 in Honduras that for at least two years has topped a list of most dangerous places to live outside the Middle East.
With its rate of 173 murders per 100,000 residents, San Pedro Sula might as well be a bona fide war zone. More than three people, on average, are killed there each day. Grim news reports describe a horror show of extortion, drug dealing, police death squads and overflowing morgues. The city once known for its banana production is now, as an ESPN report called it, “a place God forgot.” Put another way, as one mortician did in the Guardian newspaper, “Satan himself lives here.”
Not exactly a tourist destination these days. Not exactly a place most people would choose to visit, let alone in sensible sandals, bringing a wad of cash: $1,700 in donations from Omaha Mercy sisters and associates for their Honduran nun friends. Yet Sister Kathleen felt drawn to visit two fellow Sisters of Mercy who live behind a 10-foot wall ringed with barbed wire.
She wanted to stand in solidarity, bear witness and do something as the tidal waves of immigrant children fleeing Honduras, and Guatemala and El Salvador, were hitting the United States.
“We live in a bubble,” she tried to explain, “and I’m very, very uncomfortable with that.”
Sister Kathleen had been to Honduras before, most recently in November as part of an international delegation to witness the country’s presidential election. The escalation of gun violence in the Central American country was a campaign issue for now-President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who promised a soldier on every corner.
The former Mercy High teacher didn’t see a soldier on EVERY corner on her most recent visit in May. But she saw enough. Armed guards were everywhere in San Pedro Sula. At the airport. Along major roads. Inside the grocery store.
During her stay, Sister Kathleen lived with the two Honduran nuns, gave talks in various places and spent time at the nuns’ main ministries: an orphanage for children with HIV or AIDS and a women’s center.
The sisters live in a neighborhood that Sister Kathleen described as not good but not “the absolute worst.” Still, it is the kind of place where gunshots are frequent. Three times during Sister Kathleen’s visit, the Honduran nuns drove past police investigating a body by the side of the road.
Did Sister Kathleen feel safe? She said she did. But “safe” could be a relative term for someone who spent time in the 1980s in Nicaragua as a “witness of peace,” someone who was willing to get arrested for protesting nuclear weapons at Offutt Air Force Base, someone who spent nearly two decades along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Did the Honduran sisters feel safe? Sister Kathleen said they did not, but they were trying to live as normally as possible under the circumstances.
One of the Honduran nuns is raising her 4-year-old niece because the girl was torn, literally, from her mother’s breast by uniformed men four years ago. The mother was breastfeeding and one of the men took the girl from her, left the infant with startled older siblings and then drove off with the mother, who has not been seen or heard from since.
No amount of inquiries by the Honduran nun and her family have resulted in any information. Though the girl is a bubbly child, loud noises terrify her.
“She has what I call visceral fear,” Sister Kathleen said. “She runs for the nearest adult. Just for a split second the mood in the house can go from, ‘Everything’s fine,’ to ‘It’s-OK-it’s-OK-it’s-OK.’ ”
Life stops briefly when gunshots sound.
“And then you go on,” she said, “It isn’t that you’re going around with your stomach grinding all the time. You live with that uncertainty, that awareness. Being vigilant.”
It’s a disconcerting “normal.” While she was there on Mother’s Day, Sister Kathleen heard that two young brothers were shot to death in front of their mother.
During her visit, Sister Kathleen met with Honduran judges and lawyers who are frustrated by their inability to wrap the rule of law around a place that has become increasingly lawless.
She heard that a complicated combination of things had led so many to flee.
Crushing poverty. A 2009 coup that ousted a president. The influx of gang members deported from the United States. Mexico’s crackdown on drug cartels and Central America’s geographic location between one of the world’s biggest drug producers (South America) and one of the world’s biggest drug markets (the United States).
Sister Kathleen returned June 6 to Omaha, where she currently lives. One of her ministries is meeting with imprisoned immigrants at the Douglas County Jail. Sister Kathleen has a lot of thoughts on what has brought us to where we are today, with tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the U.S. border.
Honduras has sent the most — more than 13,000 unaccompanied children between Oct. 1 and May 31. More than 3,500 of them were under age 12, according to the Pew Research Center.
Sister Kathleen sees this crisis as an opportunity to finally do something about a long-simmering immigration problem. A host of problems, really.
Think deeper, she suggested. Dig past the sound bites. Ask why. Think about how our way of life in America is linked to the lives south of our border. Think about how bad things must be in the murder capital of the world if parents permit their children to make such a treacherous journey. And if children are even attempting it.
Contact the writer: [email protected]
Immigration Action Team Chair Jeanne Schuler wrote the following Public Pulse letter that was published on August 1 World Herald:
Let immigration law do its job
Why are the children coming? We know that the U.S. war on drugs helped to unleash gang violence in small Central American countries still recovering from brutal civil wars.
Facts matter. Eighty to 90 percent of the immigrant children are placed with sponsors while they await their hearings. These sponsor households receive no government support and in fact pay their expenses as they travel to centers, where they are fingerprinted for background checks. They pay to transport the children from the borders to their homes.
This generosity from those who often have very little contrasts with the governors who howl “not in my backyard.”
Laws exist to determine who deserves asylum, whose life is endangered, who is a victim of abandonment or neglect. Let the law do its job.
Politicians need to act quickly to deal with this humanitarian crisis. Victims of violence are on our doorstep. Let’s show decency and understanding in how we respond.
Jeanne Schuler, Omaha
Omaha Together One Community
OTOC leader Ian Fallon worked with Columbus farmer Andy Daniels to write the follow guest column which appeared in the World Herald on July 22nd:
By Andy Daniels
The writer, of Columbus, Neb., operates a farm in Platte County.
I recently attended a seminar in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the expert conducting a session on labor stated some facts that shocked me.
He said there are 3 million farm laborers working for farmers in the United States, 1 million of whom are regular American farmhands, custom combine drivers and livestock handlers. Another 98,000 are foreign citizens in the H2-A temporary agricultural worker visa program, who are documented to work on farms such as mine.
The balance of the workers, 1.9 million, are commonly called “migrant workers.” Approximately 75 percent to 90 percent of them are undocumented immigrants.
Despite our best efforts to hire U.S.-born workers for our family-owned vegetable farm, we have already learned that Americans will not do this work.
Why is this administration so intent on crippling the H2-A program even as our migrant labor pool decreases? Why are we not pursuing comprehensive immigration reform in this country?
Are we farmers and even employees of the U.S. Department of Labor just pawns in a bigger chess game called national politics? Are we all really that expendable? Does the end really justify the means?
If I lose the H2-A program, I will lose more than just 50 foreign workers. When we entered into the H2-A program, we got something amazing that we never had before — the best employees we have ever hired in 25 years of vegetable production. Those amazing employees and our complete lack of an option are the reasons we are now entering into our sixth year in the H2-A program.
These people don’t work for me. They work with me. Many have worked here five years. They are my friends, I know their families. I have a deep respect for their work ethic and family values. They may not have the education we have, but what they lack in education they make up for in natural intellect for the ways of the world. I have learned a lot from them, and I would miss them. They just want to make some money and go home to their families.
For those Americans who think all undocumented immigrants should be removed from this country, I will tell them that no one in Nebraska would benefit more than me if they all went home tomorrow. My competition would then lose their undocumented labor force.
But I also understand the plight of undocumented workers. I have worked with and personally know many of my workers. Most are good people; most are hardworking, religious and family-oriented. This country would starve in 30 days without them. Most of our ancestors did not speak English when they emigrated here. They speak Spanish, get over it.
Years ago, when my operation was smaller, I hired local Hispanic workers. In those days, most of my W-2’s were returned as “Address Unknown”. They obviously never filed for the tax refunds they all had coming.
I then started using the E-Verify system, although it is not required in this state. I found that most of those workers I hired had false Social Security numbers. I, along with those workers, had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Social Security Administration under false numbers.
This money will never be paid out on these false numbers. If you receive Social Security benefits, perhaps you should thank an undocumented immigrant for helping keep our Social Security system afloat.
Nebraska and farmers like me need immigration reform with a farm labor visa program that works. We want our farm and the farms of Nebraska that depend on immigrant labor to survive.
Midlands Voices: Visa program invaluable to farmers
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