Saturday, November 3, 2007

Rest easy; Homeland Security is On the Job! A Contemplative Nun is Deported. Whew. Thank goodness.

In the immortal words of Jack Valenti [R.I.P.], paraphrased, "“I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently, because [the Department of Homeland Security is on the job]. For I know [it] lives and thinks and works to make sure that for all Americans, and indeed, the growing body of the free world, the morning shall always come.”

Caught between immigration regulations and church rules, a British nun is forced to leave the Twin Cities as the Department of Homeland Security cracks down on religious visas.

Five years ago, Sister Joanna O'Meara got a call from God to move from England to Minnesota, she said, to train as a nun with the Visitation of Holy Mary, a small religious order that serves the residents of north Minneapolis.

Earlier this year, she got a call from immigration officials telling her that she has to go back to England because her time spent preparing to be a nun doesn't count toward her status in this country. In this case, at least, the Department of Homeland Security trumps God. O'Meara has a ticket for a Dec. 4 flight to London.

O'Meara is not appealing for a public letter-writing campaign or any other sort of action on her behalf. She has told her supporters not to ask Rep. Keith Ellison, Sen. Norm Coleman or Sen. Amy Klobuchar to intervene with immigration officials. In a case of poetic justice -- as opposed to the legal type -- she intends to leave Minneapolis with the same focus with which she arrived: helping people, in this case by drawing attention to a system that she says needs to be fixed.

"There are a lot of other people caught in this same mess," she said. "Religious people are not helped by the new immigration rules."

The government is cracking down on religious visas in the wake of a Government Accountability Office study that found that a third of them were fraudulent. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is looking at religious visas more carefully now, said spokeswoman Marilu Cabrera. There are 11,805 people -- priests, nuns, missionaries, lay ministers and others -- in the country on religious visas, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. State Department.

O'Meara applied for permanent residence but ended up being caught between two sets of conflicting regulations with no wiggle room in either one. A religious visa is good for five years. To qualify for residency, she had to spend two full years in the country after taking her vows as a nun. But her order mandates at least three years of preparation before she's eligible to take her first vows.

In theory, both demands can be met in five years, but only if the timing works out perfectly. It didn't in O'Meara's case. She didn't take her vows until April 2006, which means that she's falling three months short of the government's two-year stipulation.

The fact that her three years of training were spent doing basically the same things she did after she took her vows didn't sway immigration officials, said her lawyer, Charles Bichler, an immigration specialist with the law firm Meier, Kennedy and Quinn.

"She was living the life of an order nun that entire time," he said. "She was doing the same work she does now. We made all the arguments we could, but we could see that they were fixed on the date of her vows."

She's not being deported. On Bichler's advice, she voluntarily dropped her request for residency when it became clear that it was not going to be granted. That's important from a legal standpoint because she hopes to reapply for residency after being out of the country for the required 12 months If she had lost her case this time, it likely would have made reapplication difficult, if not impossible.

"It was too risky to continue," she said. "I had no other choice. This is the best of the worst options."

The work of contemplative nuns

The Visitation of Holy Mary is part of a worldwide order that was founded in France in 1610. It's a contemplative order in which the nuns spend their day "in a ministry of prayer and presence in the community," according to Sister Karen Mohan, the order's community leader.

The Minneapolis monastery, which was opened in 1989, is a house on Fremont Av. N. People come from the neighborhood to pray with the nuns. Sometimes they ask for food, which the order will do its best to provide. But they rely entirely on donations, and they don't always have a lot to spare.

"We live off alms," O'Meara said. "We live very simply, relying on God's providence."

The order's demanding lifestyle requires prospective members to make sure that that's really how they want to spend the rest of their lives.

"These are not vows of convenience," Mohan said.

O'Meara, 34, hails from Wolverhampton in central England. She originally came to Minnesota as part of an international volunteer program operated by the Catholic Charities Corp.

"I've always had a compassion to give back," she said. "I was assigned to the Dorothy Day Center. One day we came over here [to the monastery], and one of the sisters mentioned that they offer spiritual direction. When I got back to England, I realized that something special was happening here. I felt that this was where God was calling me to be. So I wrote them a letter, and they wrote back saying to make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes."

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will not comment specifically on her case because of privacy laws. As for O'Meara, she's disappointed but she's not disheartened.

"This is my home now," she said. "It's hard to leave a community I love, a neighborhood I love and a way of life I've been called to. But I'm not going to give up. I'm committed to living this kind of life through thick and thin. My calling is here, and I fully believe that I will be back." StarTribune

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