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SWFL Catholic Leaders Call for Migrant Family Reunification

Rachel Iacovone
Inside the oratory at Ave Maria

Governments have existed historically to offer aid, security and order, and for just as long, churches have done the same.

So, when the federal government could not answer people’s questions about separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border, people looked to the faith community to speak up.

And, Diocese of Venice Bishop Frank Dewane did.

“This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue," Dewane said. "And, that is why I decided to speak out on this.”

So, Dewane sent out a letter.

“What was really said in it was that children should not be taken away from their parents,” he said.

That is the main message of his statement. But, the bishop’s letter is more than just a moral plea for family reunification. It’s bookended by a call to action from lawmakers across party lines, and it begins by calling the United States, “our nation, a land of immigrants.”

Whether or not one agrees with that title depends on how you interpret the numbers. As of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey, this land is home to 44 million foreign-born immigrants. That’s more than 15 percent of the general population — or one in seven people you meet — and that’s not including children or grandchildren or brothers or sisters of immigrants.

The Diocese of Venice is the governing body for all Roman Catholic churches in Southwest Florida. It covers 10 counties actually, in a state where immigrants make up a higher-than-average 20 percent of the population — or, one in five Floridians you meet.

“When you look at scripture, whether it’s way back — God talking to Moses," Sister Maureen Kelleher said. "And, he says to Moses, ‘You shall not oppress the stranger resident among you because’ — and in Kings it says again — ‘God loves the stranger.’”

The verse in Exodus — chapter 22, verse 21 — says not to mistreat or oppress foreigners, but if that is where the bar is set, Sister Kelleher goes above and beyond her religious calling. She has devoted her life to the Catholic Church, but her day job is spent serving the residents of Immokalee — as an immigration attorney.

Kelleher has the corner office at Legal Aid, on the second floor of a community bank in the farmworker town.

On Tuesday afternoon, she sat at her desk, staring at her beige walls and sighing over President Trump’s tweet about sending undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers back without a judge.

“Just this morning, guy goes to work, stops at McDonald’s, meets ICE and is now in Fort Myers in jail," Kelleher said. "Mother of his four U.S. citizen children comes in. What is she going to do?”

This is a normal day for Kelleher, though. The process of what she calls “swoop and grab” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers is particularly popular in Collier County, where she works, thanks to the county’s participation in the 287(g) program — an agreement that makes this sort of detention of undocumented immigrants easier and faster between local and federal agencies.

What Kelleher says is out of the norm is separating families at the border. It’s something she hasn’t encountered in her decades-long career.

“When you talk to people, you can’t find anyone who thinks this is a good idea," Kelleher said. "But, when you say, ‘Well, does this mean that you would not be supportive anymore?’ ‘Oh, no, he’s our president!’ I’d like to say to some people, ‘I think you’re going to have to look at the overall and make a decision. It’s either Jesus or Trump.’”

Pew Research Center breaks down religion and voting with exit polling numbers. In 2016, Trump dominated in both the Protestant and Catholic categories.


But, Christianity is complicated. The difference between Catholicism and Christianity is a lot like how all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. If you’re Catholic, you’re Christian. But, if you’re Christian, you’re not necessarily Catholic.

So, 58 percent of Protestant Christians voted for Trump, but by comparison, only 52 percent of Catholics did. And, looking further back, the majority of Catholics voted for Barack Obama — both times — and for Al Gore back in 2000.

So, Catholics are a bit more left-leaning than Protestants. This could be for a variety of reasons: because Catholics are often born and raised Catholic, like the similarly left-leaning Jewish voters; because Latinos are more likely to be Catholic, and only 26 percent of Hispanic Catholics voted for Trump. The list goes on.

Sister Kelleher, though, has her own ideas as to how Trump pulled ahead in the Catholic Church.

“Oh, absolutely, it was abortion," Kelleher said, "and even from the pulpit some people were encouraged to vote for Trump because it would be a better pick of a Supreme Court nominee who would overturn Roe v. Wade.”

Bishop Dewane says that abortion and family separation are very different issues, but:

“I think all of us — all of us — have to care about life in general," Dewane said. "This is about the sanctity of the family.”

Family is a very sacred thing in the Catholic Church — not that it’s not in others, but the Catholics are known for their distaste for divorce and affinity for large families.

Like Sister Kelleher, Dewane is not married, of course. He has no children of his own, but it was that Catholic belief in unified families that really drove him to pen his letter.

“I am not a parent," he said, "but I can only imagine the difficulty for a parent to have their child pulled from their arms and not knowing where they’re going, what’s going to happen to them.”

Though President Trump signed an executive order ending his administration’s family separation policy last week, Bishop Dewane says the Diocese of Venice is not done advocating for the kids.

“Until the last one of the children are reunited with their parents, I think we all need to be concerned and keep speaking up and speaking out.”

How this will affect the Catholic vote in the future remains to be seen.

Rachel Iacovone is a reporter and associate producer of Gulf Coast Live for WGCU News. Rachel came to WGCU as an intern in 2016, during the presidential race. She went on to cover Florida Gulf Coast University students at President Donald Trump's inauguration on Capitol Hill and Southwest Floridians in attendance at the following day's Women's March on Washington.Rachel was first contacted by WGCU when she was managing editor of FGCU's student-run media group, Eagle News. She helped take Eagle News from a weekly newspaper to a daily online publication with TV and radio branches within two years, winning the 2016 Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Award for Best Use of Multimedia in a cross-platform series she led for National Coming Out Day. She also won the Mark of Excellence Award for Feature Writing for her five-month coverage of an FGCU student's transition from male to female.As a WGCU reporter, she produced the first radio story in WGCU's Curious Gulf Coast project, which answered the question: Does SWFL Have More Cases of Pediatric Cancer?Rachel graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University with a bachelor's degree in journalism.