Catholic Higher Education: In Solidarity With Migrants

Mount Mercy University
Mount Mercy University students during their immersion trip to El Paso, Texas

With the 2016 U.S. presidential race already underway, candidates are discussing their ideas regarding the social, economic, and political issues facing America, many of which are of great concern to the Catholic Church. One of most prominent issues is immigration. Shortly after launching his presidential campaign in June 2015, for instance, Donald Trump made controversial statements about Mexican immigrants, characterizing them as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, ending with, “Some, I assume, are good people.”

Such harsh statements about people who seek a better life in the United States come from an unfortunate public misconception and general lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of immigration. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains in Strangers No Longer Together on the Journey of Hope that the decision to migrate is strongly influenced by factors such as poverty, injustice, religious intolerance, and armed-conflict in other countries. The Catholic Church has spoken strongly regarding the importance of welcoming immigrants who pursue the American dream of safety, opportunity, stability, and freedom, while also working to address the root causes of migration.  Recognizing the need for reform of both political policies and individual hearts, Catholic higher education, along with the Catholic Church, provides students with the information and experiences to learn more about migration.

As the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis frequently speaks about the importance of respectful treatment of migrants. In his message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in 2015, the pope asserted, “Often … migration gives rise to suspicion and hostility, even in ecclesial communities, prior to any knowledge of the migrants’ lives or their stories of persecution and destitution. In such cases, suspicion and prejudice conflict with the biblical commandment of welcoming with respect and solidarity the stranger in need.” The Catholic Church affirms the importance of standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, regardless of immigration status, as we are all part of one human family, created in the image of God. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explains in their public policy statement on immigration reform that we must welcome the foreigner and show respect for every person as part of their inherent human dignity, following Jesus’ prophetic proclamation, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

Guided by Catholic Social Teaching, Catholic higher education stands in solidarity with migrants, educating students about the reasons why migration occurs and supporting communities through service and advocacy for immigration reform.  Catholic colleges and universities have undertaken activities to support immigrants and immigration reform such as establishing scholarships for students from immigrant backgrounds, welcoming undocumented immigrant students, and promoting educational opportunities for students to encounter the experience of migrants and the difficult journey they face. One example of a powerful educational opportunity is Cabrini College’s project titled, “#RefugeesSeekingSafety.”

Funded by the Global Solidarity Grants program sponsored by ACCU and Catholic Relief Services, the #RefugeesSeekingSafety project led participants through an innovative 25-minute simulation of the experience of unaccompanied minors fleeing from violence in Central America by coming to the United States. The simulation was originally designed by a freshman social justice course, “Our Interdependent World.” The grant from ACCU and CRS helped students from the class, Cabrini Catholic Relief Services Ambassadors, and members of the Cabrini Mission Corps edit and expand the draft of the simulation and create a website to promote and share the simulation. The students debuted the final simulation in spring 2015, when more than 75 participants got a glimpse of the situations and options that minors face at the U.S.-Mexico border. The group reflected on the root causes of migration; learned about advocacy programs, ranging from social media tags to petitions to Congress; and gathered for a solidarity prayer-walk. These participants gained a better understanding of the issues that refugees seeking safety face and learned how they can support change and take action on immigration reform.

Similar to this Cabrini program, another example of a powerful educational opportunity is Mount Mercy University’s project, “Standing in Solidarity with Migrants.” Also funded by the Global Solidarity Grants program, this project engaged students, faculty, and the community in educational opportunities to learn, reflect, and take action on immigration issues. First, Sr. Kathleen Erickson, RSM, spoke about her personal experiences with immigration, both as an assistant at a center for immigrant women and as an immersion coordinator. The lecture helped students understand the causes and effects of migration. The following day, the community came together to pray for migrants in an interfaith service and participated in a workshop to reflect on their experiences. The group wrote letters to their representatives advocating for comprehensive immigration reform centered on the fair and just treatment of humans. Lastly, staff, faculty, and students were given the opportunity to experience the lives of migrants through a four-day immersion trip to the U.S.-Mexico Border in El Paso, TX. While staying in a migrant shelter, participants discussed immigration with U.S. Border Patrol representatives, listened to stories of migrants and refugees, met with human rights activists, and visited historical and cultural sites. The four-day immersion trip to El Paso brought together faith, reflection, and action, connecting the complex discussion of immigration to the participants’ spiritual beliefs.

Prior to experiencing either of these initiatives, many of the participants had little to no knowledge about migration. At the completion of these projects, participants had gained invaluable insights, grown spiritually, and developed skills to advocate for solidarity. Both institutions plan to continue their advocacy for migrants. Cabrini College designed a website to share the simulation experience with other students, campuses, and the public to inform them on the perilous journey that refugees face. The #RefugeesSeekingSafety website is also intended to broaden the opportunity for visitors to recreate the experience, learn how to advocate, and take action on immigration reform.

Mount Mercy student Katelyn Bishop explains that after participating in her university’s project, her “eyes are opened to the harsh reality that many immigrants face in the world today.”  The Mount Mercy Social Justice Club, a student group, plans to continue advocating for solidarity and educating fellow students on the topic of immigration next year. Upon returning from the immersion trip to El Paso, Mount Mercy student Abby Herd reflected on her life-changing experience and her plans to continue advocating for immigrants: “I am raising my voice for the thousands that can’t, the thousands of people suffering, the thousands of people that are dying because of a fence that cages people in. I am a voice for the voiceless. Will you be?”

Kathryn Roarty is a 2015 graduate of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  She interned with ACCU in summer 2015.

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