By Megan Ferguson, Chattanooga, TN—Plans are in the making to bring Sister Mary Ellen Lacy, of the “Nuns on the Bus” tour, to Chattanooga to share thoughts and proposals about immigration reform.
Sister Mary Ellen is a Daughter of Charity and a lobbyist who focuses primarily on immigration, healthcare, nutrition and Gulf Coast restoration issues, according to the Network Lobby, the Catholic lobbyist organization Sister Mary Ellen works with.
The “Nuns on the Bus” tour is made up of a group of nuns who are traveling the country, providing service to those in need and speaking out on social issues, according to their website.
She is a licensed registered nurse, nursing home administrator and attorney. Immediately prior to joining the NETWORK Lobby staff in August 2011, Sister Mary Ellen provided legal services to impoverished victims of hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast Oil Spill and represented numerous individuals before the Social Security Administration in Alabama, according to the Network Lobby.
NETWORK is a progressive voice within the Catholic community that has been influencing Congress in favor of peace and justice for more than 40 years. Through lobbying and legislative advocacy, the nuns strive to close the gap between rich and poor and to dismantle policies rooted in racism, greed and violence, according to their website.
Roger Thompson, criminal justice associate professor, said there is great benefit from bringing Sister Mary Ellen Lacy to speak.
“There is always benefit from bringing someone in from outside and in this case, she is part of the ‘Nuns on the Bus’ tour,” Thompson said. “She is part of the lobby group that is helping frame and design a package that is going to go before Congress.”
Thompson said he wants the University community as well as the Chattanooga community to have the opportunity to hear a voice that would help understand the complexities that face immigration.
Thompson said he is aware the organization Sister Mary Ellen Lacy is a part of, the faith community, has played an active role in immigration issues by declaring “sanctuary cities.”
“In effect she is saying, ‘We don’t like or agree with what some of the enforcement actions look like and we prefer to offer assistance,’” Thompson said. “Basically, she is defining a position [in] opposition to what the current mandates are.”
NETWORK members like Sister Mary Ellen believe the nation’s immigration system is broken. Members believe the system is not functioning well for our nation, for the economy, for families, nor for immigrants, according to the Network Lobby.
NETWORK believes that immigration is imperative.
In response to the clear requirements of their faith, NETWORK is advocating for: a clear and direct pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who are undocumented in the United State, support and incorporation of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) in any comprehensive immigration reform package, a plan for expediting applicant backlogs for permanent residence, with family unity as a priority, protection of workers’ rights, including an effective program for temporary workers that safeguards against exploitation, restoration of due process protections and reformed detention policies for those detained in the immigration system that reflect humanitarian values, policies that address the root causes of migration resulting from U.S. trade agreements, global economic conditions, war, destruction of environmental resources, and other injustices, and a strategy for the anticipated future flow of immigrants into the United States, according to the website.
Thompson said he wanted somebody who would offer a different perspective than any other speaker. Sister Mary Ellen’s perspective is that the immigration policy should be based on humane solutions rather than legalistic ones, and should offer aid to those in need no matter what.
“I wanted somebody who would have a spirit, that would offer perspective, a different voice than what we would commonly come across, someone that would give us insight and energy that’s in motion,” he said.
Thompson said Sister Mary Ellen will be coming to Chattanooga from a protest in Austin, Texas.
“I realize not everybody may agree with her political position,” Thompson said. “I look at her speaking as a stimulus to public conversation and it would be good to begin to think, begin to talk.”
NETWORK members like Sister Mary Ellen believe increased enforcement is tearing families apart and causing suffering for those who are otherwise willing and eager to contribute to our society. She believes the nation needs an immigration system that reflects our faith values and the needs of the twenty-first century, according to the website.
Thompson said Chattanooga is changing from the city it used to be where everyone used to have roots here.
“I sit on the advisory board for the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and we have 73 languages represented in our city,” Thompson said. “We are changing. It used to be a families who had been born and raised here and that’s changed.”
Thompson said Chattanooga receives many immigrants every year and is trying to bring them into the mainstream society.
“The critical question is will we welcome them?” Thompson said. “If they look different than we do, if they speak a different language, if they have a different culture, will we accept them?”
Thompson said part of having Sister Mary Ellen speak at Chattanooga is meant to give students and the Chattanooga community a common base of understanding.
Thompson also said the whole idea is that there are some major economic principals at play in immigration.
“If we give immigrants legal status and we give them jobs, we still have a labor market and are we going to bring in others to fill it?” Thompson said. “Do we understand there are economic variables that corporate America is going to ask for so they can compete in a global economy?”
Thompson said this will be described philosophically, logically and ethically with Sister Mary Ellen.
Thompson said the intent in having her as a speaker at Chattanooga is to say that immigration is a broad topic that is not in a textbook that you can not read about and will not talk about unless students and the Chattanooga community knows about it.
“Here is how we can add some dimension to our education,” Thompson said.
Thompson said that there are organizations that spread awareness and give help to those who may be stereotyped by the community, La Paz Chattanooga being one of them.
“Not only do we need more organizations like that, but we need them to expand in terms of their reach,” Thompson said. “So that the ministers and others are able to appreciate the fact that they are here to help them.”
Thompson said people who do not have legal status are not going to call the police because they are afraid if something comes to the attention of the authorities, then they put themselves at risk of deportation.
“The Chattanooga community should be understanding and try to help as well,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he recalls when a mosque was opened in the area and it became a community event where not only was there welcome, but in many ways, levels of communication and understanding.
“We need this kind of understanding for immigration in all aspects,” Thompson said.
Jess Medeiros, a senior from Spring Hill, Tenn., said it is really difficult to bring attention to issues of immigration because some are so against it.
“However, we as students are in a unique position to learn about these social injustice issues and do something about them,” Medeiros said. “So I think it is extremely important to keep students at the forefront of these movements and have these speakers speak at UTC.”
Thompson said that not everybody may be happy because the speaker may be a little controversial, but UTC students and the Chattanooga community should expose themselves to a diverse level of viewpoints.
“You can bet there are going to be people that have the ignorant thought of ‘just put them all on a boat and send them back,'” Thompson said. “The community will be different the next day after her speaking rather than not having her at all,” Thompson said.
The on-campus event will be March 28 at 10:50 a.m. in the UC Auditorium.
Thompson said this will bring different disciplines together, whether it be communications, psychology students, religion students or criminology students.
Thompson said then Sister Mary Ellen will then go beyond the University and outreach into the community and discuss why immigration is an important topic that effects us all and stimulate conversation.
This event will be at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Ballroom at 5 p.m.