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Heidi Cerneka


Year Joined MKLM: 1996

Country: U.S.-Mexico Border

City: El Paso Texas

Focus: Justice & Peace

Populations Served: Immigrants and asylum seekers

Description: legal services


Current Ministry:

Heidi reopened the U.S.-Mexico border for MKLM in January 2019. She is based in the city of El Paso, Texas, which borders on the city of Juárez, Chihuahua. She states: 

I am an immigration attorney with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, working almost exclusively with detained migrants – mostly asylum seekers who find themselves in jail (detained) because they asked for asylum. I represent them in their cases asking for protection via asylum from the United States government, or for some other relief from deportation (like visas for survivors of human trafficking, of certain crimes, of domestic violence). I also focus a lot on helping detained asylum-seekers get released so that they can pursue their cases from a safe place and have better access to evidence and resources. It is very gratifying to represent people who win asylum and protection to stay in the United States, just as it is heartbreaking to see people with genuine fear for legitimate reasons who still lose their cases and suffer deportation. 

Additionally, I put a lot of time into mission education and connecting people who are not here at the border to understand the reality and get involved in some way. The goal is to educate people about the reality here, get them engaged in our work to continue volunteering with us and also to talk to people back home about what they have seen and learned. I write and speak in many venues about the reality and the call to justice both at a macro level and at an individual case level.

Personal Data:

Heidi claims both St. Louis, MO, and Chicago, IL, as home. She joined MKLM in 1996. Before that, she worked in campus ministry at Loyola University Chicago. She also has experience working with women in situations of substance abuse and domestic violence. In addition, Heidi spent two years in Belize working with the Jesuit Volunteers. Heidi received her degrees at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, IN (BA in Religious Studies [1987]), and Loyola University Chicago (Master’s degree in Pastoral Studies [1991] and Juris Doctor [2017]).

Past Ministry with Maryknoll Lay Missioners:

For over 20 years, Heidi has worked with incarcerated women, offering accompaniment and advocacy right in the prisons with the women, as well as advocating for justice policies that contemplate women’s unique situations and advocating for a world where prison is not the answer for injustices. She reflects, “Prison is the place where I most feel the presence of God. When you strip a person of everything else—family, home, job, freedom, and more—sometimes all she has left is her faith and her God and she holds tenaciously to that. I often hear pastoral ministers say that they visit prisons because it is our call to bring Jesus to the prisons. I believe that Jesus is there long before we are, and our job is to meet him there in the people that we visit.”

After earning her law degree in 2017, Heidi served in Kenya, engaging with local organizations in Mombasa and Nairobi. She worked with pastoral and legal projects to help women involved in the criminal justice system, especially with paralegal and self-representation programs that train them to be their own advocates in their criminal cases.

Kenya does not have public defenders, so considering that most people in prison have very limited economic resources, they generally end up without a lawyer to defend them in court. Training prisoners to speak up in court, to be their own advocate, not only gives them a better chance of a fair trial, but it also gives them courage and self-confidence that lasts far beyond their court case.

From 1996 to 2014, Heidi lived and worked in São Paulo, Brazil. She served with both the National Prison Pastoral Ministry—associated with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference—as well as with a nongovernmental organization, the Institute for Land, Work, and Citizenship (ITTC). Heidi worked on public policy and human rights issues for all people in prison, and for their families, but she developed a specific ministry with women in prison, because women are generally overlooked in prison policy and advocacy. She provided direct pastoral support to women prisoners through regular visits, and she networked with local, state and national governmental and nongovernmental organizations. They effected change in the treatment of women, the hearing of their cases, and opportunities for alternative sentencing, and at the same time, addressed larger issues related to crime, drug, and human trafficking, identifying patterns that repeat from country to country. Additionally, Heidi participated in United Nations expert working groups to develop Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of women (Bangkok Rules), and the revision of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of all prisoners (Mandela Rules).


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