NEW HAVEN – Ever since the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus began ministering to Italian immigrants here in 1906, only four years after arriving from Italy, the community has held a strong connection to the church’s mission of welcoming the stranger.
So it was no surprise when they returned to their roots by launching Apostle Immigrant Services (AIS) in 2008 to provide a range of educational programs and legal immigration services to people of all races and beliefs.
“Our community decided we wanted to open a program of our own offering services to immigrants,” said Sister Mary Ellen Burns, an attorney who heads the ministry and who has 19 years of experience working with the immigrant community in New York City.
Legal services range from assistance with immigration forms and correspondence to family-sponsored and fiancé(e) visas, permanent residence (green) cards, United States naturalization and citizenship assistance, deportation defense and assistance for victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes.
Operating out of the former Sisters of Mercy convent across from St. Rose of Lima Parish, Sister Mary Ellen works with two other sisters from her community.
Sister Doretta D’Albero is an accredited immigration representative who serves clients seeking immigration services. Sister Jeanne Marie Vonder Haar is a pastoral associate at St. Aedan/St. Brendan Parish with 33 years of experience as a classroom teacher, and who coordinates a variety of education outreach programs, including homework assistance for children in grades two through eight.
The sisters received training from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) offered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The sisters also offer one-on-one preparation for the United States citizenship exam and lead English conversation classes, thanks to the support of “a cadre of extremely generous and delightful volunteers,” according to Sister Mary Ellen.
AIS complements the work of the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Catholic Charities Migration, Refugee and Immigration Services, which serves refugees and provides immigration legal aid, including preparation classes for the citizenship test.
“They (CLINIC) provide top-notch training in the area of immigration, and provide support services for the development of no-profit immigration services across the country,” said Sister Mary Ellen, a native of Hamden who attended Sacred Heart Academy, graduated magna cum laude from Albertus Magnus College and earned her law degree from Yale University in 1989.
“It enabled us to go into an area of law that is quite complex, and where the stakes are high for the people filling out the applications,” she said.
Since opening the office, the sisters estimate they have served well over 850 clients from more than 65 countries. To manage demand for their services, the office accepts walk-in clients on the second Friday of each month; and meets with young people interested in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (stemming from the so-called Dream Act) on the first and third Fridays of each month.
Sister Mary Ellen said that the office served about 300 people alone in 2012 when the deferred action program (that allowed illegal immigrants who entered the United States as minors to apply for documentation) was enacted by the Obama Administration.
Moreover, she anticipates that if immigration reform is enacted, they can expect to see “a tsunami” of demand for services. If those floodgates open, Sister Doretta cautions, immigrants should seek out competent legal representation and avoid unqualified or unethical people who prey on their community.
Although long hours and demand for their services are typical, the sisters agree that meeting families’ needs is satisfying humanitarian labor.
“I just love this work,” said Sister Mary Ellen. “It is a real privilege to work with and for our clients.
“They have generally overcome astounding challenges,” she said. “Their hope, their resiliency and their faith are all truly exemplary to me.
“That they entrust us with sometimes very personal stories of their life to [allow us to] help them is a sacred trust that they place in us,” she continued. “I’ve never had more satisfying work as a lawyer than this, … enabling someone who struggled and overcame many obstacles to come here and make a better life for themselves and their families.”