RALEIGH — Sister Attracta Kelly was living and working in the Dominican Sisters mother-house in the late 1980s when she got a call from a nonprofit organization in Detroit that serves political refugees.
Would her Roman Catholic convent temporarily house a group of people fleeing persecution in Guatemala and El Salvador?
So began two years of civil disobedience during which Kelly and the other sisters hid Central American refugees while they completed paperwork to settle in Canada. During the day, the sisters taught the adults English; the children attended a Montessori school on the grounds of the Adrian, Mich., convent.
The experience redirected Kelly's calling to a career in law and brought her to North Carolina 10 years ago to lead the N.C. Justice Center's Immigrant Legal Assistance Project.
"I decided I could do much better if I knew the law," Kelly said. "You can't keep hiding people forever."
Since 1999, she has defended hundreds of immigrants whom the U.S. government wanted to deport and has trained countless other lawyers who work with the state's burgeoning immigrant population. Most of those immigrants have been asylum seekers.
Kelly, who left the Justice Center last month, is now leaving North Carolina to return to the mother-house in Michigan, this time as "prioress" or mother superior of her order.
"I feel really sad," said Paulina Rodriguez Ortega of Raleigh, a former judge from Colombia who won political asylum with Kelly's help. "Whenever I had a problem, I would go to her and say, 'I need help.' She was always open to helping."
Ortega, who fled Colombia after being threatened by paramilitary groups, said Kelly also intervened on her behalf with an employer who was reluctant to hire her before the courts had settled her asylum case. She counseled Ortega's son when he was feeling lost. She helped prepare mother and son for their upcoming citizenship tests.
Kelly could easily spend the next few years preparing to retire and scaling back her professional ambitions. Instead, she is ramping up, taking charge of an order with 845 nuns in the United States, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Kenya and Canada.
Side of the oppressed
Like many religious sisters, she feels called by God - in her case to help the oppressed.
It's a calling she said she shared with her father, a farmer active in the political fight for Ireland's independence in the early part of the 20th century.
Growing up Catholic in County Roscommon, Kelly was well aware of the violence and discrimination that the British government directed at the nationalists.
"We learned history from the side of the oppressed," she said.
Even her name, Attracta, testifies to her Celtic roots. Little is known of the fifth or sixth century St. Attracta. She might have been a Celtic goddess co-opted by the church, Kelly said.
At age 18, Kelly arrived in the United States to visit a cousin who was a Dominican sister. Soon after, she entered the convent herself.
In the mid-1960s, the Dominican Sisters defined their spiritual gift as helping the oppressed and empowering people to speak for themselves. It was a gift Kelly felt deeply within her own identity.
But if she wasn't quite prepared to hide persecuted refugees, she soon came to believe it was the right thing to do.
In the 1980s, the U.S. military began funding and training Central American armies to fight communist rebels. Many civilians suspected of being left-leaning were tortured, killed or simply disappeared.
Those who could fled. But because the United States denied them asylum, religious congregations stepped in, offering shelter, food and legal advice. The religious response, often called the Sanctuary Movement, united Catholics and Protestants in something akin to a 20th century Underground Railroad.
But Kelly quickly realized she would rather fight for the refugees' legal status than help them cross the border. She began legal studies in 1993, graduating three years later from Catholic University's Columbus School of Law in Washington.
Since then, she has helped hundreds of people the government was trying to deport, not just Hispanics but also, more typically, Africans and Asians.
She gets frustrated when she reads letters to the editor from people impatient with the soaring number of people who live in this country illegally. She said it's nearly impossible to get a visa to live and work legally in the United States. Although the State Department has a green-card lottery program, it is available only for people from countries with low rates of immigration. Mexico and China, for example, don't qualify. For most of the rest, a legal existence in the United States is unattainable.
Divisions not deep
Kelly would like to see the U.S. provide more foreign economic development aid. She is convinced that if people had work in their native countries, they wouldn't be so eager to leave.
She often debates these points with Thomas O'Connell, the agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Cary.
"Her opinions and mine are not diametrically different," he said.
O'Connell said he enjoyed working with Kelly and is sorry to see her go.
Kelly hopes more people realize that the divisions between legal and illegal are not that deep or fundamental.
"It's when we divide ourselves into us vs. them that we can ignore what happens to them because we think there's a difference between them and us," she said. "I look at it all as 'us.' We all came from the same creator."
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