“Through personal contact, or travel, or even stories, we are all expanding. We are caring as a people, and we are so blessed here in the United States. We can make life better for our southern neighbors,” Sister Kelleher said on December 2, when she received the Mother Butler Leadership Award at the Marymount College Alumnae Association’s annual Founder’s Day celebration on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.
Sister Kelleher, a Catholic nun and an attorney, has been on the front lines of immigration issues and asylum requests for more than 30 years. She speaks passionately of her clients at Legal Aid Services of Collier County in Immokalee, Florida, a heavily agricultural area just north of the Everglades. There she mostly supports impoverished migrant farmworkers who were victims of crimes in their home countries in Central and South America.
In one case earlier this year, she advocated for a woman who had fled an abusive relationship with a gang member who was threatening her life. She said he had left him in Honduras and returned to her family in El Salvador, but he pursued her and continued physically and emotionally abusing her. She was unable to leave the relationship without risking her life, she said, so she sought asylum in the U.S. With Sister Kelleher’s help, she was able to stay.
“I could not have won that case later in 2018,” Sister Kelleher told her fellow Marymount alumnae and guests at the luncheon in Butler Commons. “Such victims of domestic violence no longer qualify” to be protected, she said, citing a recent memo issued by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions (a policy which was struck down about two weeks after the event). Many women who are victims of violence and sexual assault will most likely be sent back to countries where their safety is at risk, she said.
“The [long-term] solution to this issue and so many others lies in nations with capacity collaborating with honest stakeholders in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to invest so as to make change in these countries,” she said.
In response to an audience member who asked how they could help, Sister Kelleher encouraged attendees to take “hold of the power that women have.”
“Use your pen, use your voice, and, frankly, get in touch with organizations that you feel at home with” she told them.
After receiving the award, Sister Kelleher, who was one of only three nuns worldwide to serve as an auditor at the Catholic Church’s 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family, spoke about how meaningful it was to be honored by her fellow Marymount alumnae—especially since both her mother and aunt had attended the college before her. “We’re very much a Marymount family,” said the 1960 grad, who also earned a master’s degree in English from Fordham in 1969.
It was while teaching high school religion and reading about various social movements that Sister Kelleher was first inspired to act on behalf of vulnerable populations, she said. And when she saw how integral the legal system was to advancing causes in ministry, she decided to attend law school at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Her motivation is simple. “I can only say that, when my neighbor’s house is on fire, I can hardly say it’s no concern of mine,” she said.