Sr. Maureen Kelleher was honored in 2016 by the Legal Aid Society for being one of five women as “Makers: Women Who Make Southwest Florida.” The award is for their passion for improving the lives of people and the vitality of the planet. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (pictured at right with Sr. Maureen) has placed her name in the Congressional Record for her years of service in helping so many in the area of immigration in Southwest Florida.
Sr. Maureen relates her journey as an attorney and her passion for the people she serves:
Having taught high school religion in the 1960’s where we studied people like Cesar Chavez and the farm workers’ struggle in the U.S., I asked my religious community if I could work in Washington D.C. in a women religious’ lobby group just starting. Our work at NETWORK was to meet with members of Congress urging support for laws protecting workers and urging support for spending bills for human needs. By the end of the 1970’s, having seen the power of laws, I asked to go to law school. While at Catholic University Law School, I became focused on the struggles in Central America. The enthusiasm of the Latin American Church and its option for the poor. I also knew I wanted to practice law for farm workers, so many of whom were recent Latina and Haitian immigrants.
I am working in a non-profit law group aiding farm workers in Immokalee, a south Florida rural area known for its production of tomatoes and winter vegetables. I have been there for 32 years working mainly with Mexican, Haitian, and Guatemalan workers. My focus in immigration law is to unify families and prevent deportation of family members. I assist victims of crime who have suffered substantial harm so they can obtain legal documents to work and finally to become legal permanent residents if they cooperate with the authorities in the investigation and prosecution of the criminal.
Over the years, many of my clients have fled their countries and sought political asylum since they had a well-founded fear of persecution because of their religion, race, political opinion, nationality, or particular social group. Many of my current clients are youth who fled El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras because they were being terrorized by gangs. One recent client from El Salvador told me of his death threats if he did not join his area’s gang and that he was driven away from attending school by a rival gang. His father made him report the most recent hold-up to the police and that very act of making a police report marks him for death. Neighboring youth have been murdered and his cousin was beheaded.
Over the years I have loved working with these clients, whom I believe are God’s special people. Their values of hard work, family and faith were the way I was raised. While materially poor, they for the most part are caring folk who make room for the sudden migrant visitor. I am richly rewarded by their gratitude. Their spirit keeps me going.