New York News

Long Island Nuns Run Immigration Clinic to Assist Job-Seeking Migrants

Sister Eileen McCann and Sister Janet Kinney said they have worked hard to provide migrants with a warm, welcoming atmosphere when they come to seek help. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

BRENTWOOD, NY — Sister Eileen McCann, CSJ, is a retired immigration attorney, but these days she is working harder than she has in years. She’s using her expertise and familiarity with the complexities of the U.S. immigration system to assist migrants with asylum applications that would allow them to stay in the country and work. 

Sister Eileen serves as a volunteer legal consultant for the Long Island Immigration Clinic, a program operated by her religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, that is run out of the sisters’ Long Island campus. 

“Immigrants have always been part of our ministry. Now, we’re stepping it up a little,” said Sister Eileen, who refers to the migrants as “our immigrant friends.” 

The clinic, which started up in 2022, helps approximately 1,000 people a year, according to Sister Janet Kinney, CSJ, the director, who said it is staffed by 115 volunteers, including attorneys and interpreters. Translators are needed because the vast majority of the clients are non-English speakers, she explained. 

Most of the clients come from Central America and come across the U.S.-Mexico border, But they also hail from strife-torn countries like Haiti and Pakistan. 

“They’re fleeing for their lives. It’s heartbreaking. They come here and take any job they can get. There are people who were dentists, lawyers and business owners in the old country, and now they’re scrubbing somebody’s toilet,” Sister Eileen said. 

The clinic assists clients with asylum claims, visa issues and citizenship applications. “Once we accept a case, we have a whole team that helps each person,” Sister Janet said. 

The Long Island Immigration Clinic is one of two major programs that the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood runs to help newcomers in the U.S. 

The other is the Refugee Resettlement Program, which began in 2021 and houses and finds jobs for people who have obtained official refugee status from the U.S. government, meaning that they have fled war-torn countries like Ukraine and Afghanistan and the government is allowing them to stay for a period of time. 

Viktoria advertises her skills as a hairdresser on fliers that have been placed all over the Brentwood campus.(Photo: Paula Katinas)

The refugees are housed in apartments located right on the Brentwood campus. According to Sister Annelle Fitzpatrick, CSJ, the program’s director, there are currently 44 people living on campus under the Refugee Resettlement Program. 

One of these refugees being housed by the sisters is Ukrainian Viktoria, who is living here rent free with her husband Oleh and their 10-year-old daughter Anastasiia. They had lived in Kyiv, the capital city, for a time and were in Nikopol, a city in the south of Ukraine, when Russia invaded their country.

They fled Ukraine last year. “It is very dangerous in Ukraine right now,” Viktoria said, adding that she is grateful for the sisters’ hospitality. “They make us feel like we are their family.” 

The sisters even helped Viktoria, who was a licensed hairdresser in Ukraine, obtain a New York State barber’s license so that she could make some money cutting and styling hair here. 

Not only that, but the sisters also went the extra mile. They created “Joseph’s Hair Salon” and had Viktoria cut and style their hair, as well as the hair of lay people who work on campus so that when Viktoria applied for her barber’s license, she could honestly say she had experience here as a hairstylist. “It was a big, big help,” she said. 

While Viktoria is happy to be safe and away from the bombings, she misses her family and is constantly worried about them. “I want to go back home. But it is too dangerous, so we stay here,” she explained. 

However, reminders of home are all around her, especially when she turns on the television news. 

Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, said she is sometimes jarred when she thinks of what Viktoria left behind. 

“I remember watching television with her and the news showed a city in Ukraine where a building had just been bombed. 

She said to me, ‘I recognize that building. I know where it is.’ My heart was in my mouth when she said that,” Sister Tesa recalled. 

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood said it was serendipity that led to the establishment of both the Long Island Immigration Job Clinic and the Refugee Resettlement Program. 

Sister Janet recalled that she and other sisters would just be going about their daily routines in the communities on Long Island when they started to encounter migrants on the streets. “We decided we should be doing something to help them,” she said. 

And so the Long Island Immigration Job Clinic was born. 

Sister Annelle was teaching sociology at St. John’s University in 2021 and had come to know members of the Muslim community through her sociology work. 

When the U.S. military left Afghanistan in 2021, “we knew we wanted to do something for the Afghans, especially the women, who fled when the Taliban took over,” she recalled. 

To Sister Tesa, the programs fit in perfectly with the mission of the sisters, which is to do God’s work and help people. “It’s a concrete reflection of who we are and what we do,” she said. 

The sisters would welcome donations to the two programs.