Catholic Colleges Support Immigrant Students

In response to the heated political debate on the issue of immigration, Archbishop of Los Angeles José H. Gomez, in a September lecture at Boston College, spoke of the importance of not letting statistics cloud our vision of the people who make up the numbers. Gomez explained that it is a Christian call “to remember that behind every statistic is a soul — a soul who has dignity as a child of God, a soul who has rights and needs that are both spiritual and material.”

Catholic universities are embracing this person-centered approach through their policies and programs by welcoming students who are immigrants. By offering support and resources, institutions like Saint Peter’s University, Christian Brothers University, and Dominican University are creating equal opportunities for immigrants, including undocumented students, as well as providing educational programming on the complexity of immigration.

Saint Peter’s University has responded to the needs of undocumented students by opening the Center for Undocumented Students (TCUS). Jennifer Ayala, director of the center, explained,  “The mission of TCUS is to support the academic work of undocumented students at the university, to shed intellectual light on the political and economic realities of immigration in our world today, and to create a community where undocumented students feel welcome.” Resources available through the center include a modest resource library, legal support, referrals and collaborations within the university as well as with outside organizations, internships, workshops for staff and faculty, “know your rights” workshops for students and their families, and advising and mentoring. TCUS also helps students find ways to pay for their education because undocumented students do not qualify for state or federal aid. In September, TCUS co-sponsored a student-organized conference, United Struggles, that educated students on community organizing as a way to engage politically and intentionally with the issue of immigration. TCUS  has also recently co-authored a letter urging the university administration to declare Saint Peter’s a sanctuary campus.

Eugene J. Cornacchia, Ph.D., president of Saint Peter’s, pointed out the continuity of the center’s mission with the university’s Jesuit legacy: “Saint Peter’s has proudly educated immigrant students since it first opened in 1872 and seeks to continue and enrich this tradition by extending its welcome and support to undocumented students, otherwise known as dreamers. We are proud to be a part of the large group of Jesuit colleges and universities that continue to advocate for dreamers.”

Christian Brothers University (CBU) is another college providing support through scholarships and a place of community to address the issue of immigration, focused specifically on the needs of Latino immigrant students. Two scholarships are available through the institution’s Latino Student Success Program: the Latino Achievement Scholarship for FAFSA-qualified students and the Latino Success Scholarship for non-FAFSA-qualified students. CBU has committed $12 million in scholarships and grants over seven years to serving undocumented students, funding that will benefit over 100 students. The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics has recognized CBU as an exemplary case for implementing programs that support the expansion of high-quality education for Latinos. Executive director of the White House Initiative, Alejandra Ceja, commended CBU as “the first institution of higher education [that] has publicly answered our national call for commitments.” A student-led organization, Hola CBU, also provides support for students on campus and in the local community. Hola CBU hosts events to expose the campus to Latino culture and create a welcoming Latino community. The group also partners with a local organization, Latino Memphis, to provide services like interpreting and standardized test tutoring for high school seniors.

Paul Haught, vice president of academics and student life at CBU, connected these programs to the Catholic identity of the institution, saying, “Christian Brothers University, as an institution founded on the Lasallian mission of providing educational opportunities to the underserved, continues to advocate for the education of all who stand to benefit their communities by gaining the benefits of higher education. So-called undocumented students belong to this class as much as anyone. If they are college ready, we invite them to share in CBU’s gifts of teaching and service.” CBU supports undocumented students, not only with scholarships, but also with a vibrant community. This dual approach recognizes the many needs of students during their time in college.

borderlands
Dominican University students on Borderlands trip

Lastly, Dominican University was recently honored with the Moral Courage Award from the nonprofit organization Faith in Public Life for its leadership in supporting the right of undocumented students to receive a college education. For Dominican President Donna Carroll, the students are the courageous leaders and the university is called to “stand with them” to fulfill its mission to give compassionate service and create a more just world.

In spring 2016, Dominican facilitated a border immersion trip called Borderlands to deepen engagement with the human and societal consequences of immigration — outcomes that often can be understood only by witnessing firsthand the circumstances of a border community. The program was partially funded by a Global Solidarity Grant, a collaboration between ACCU and Catholic Relief Services that awards funding to Catholic colleges and universities to increase awareness of global injustice and expand student involvement in bringing about change. During the Dominican University trip, students traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana to learn about the social issues present in migration, specifically for people migrating from Central America and Mexico to the United States. Before they traveled, the team of students spent time in prayer and learning about Catholic Social Teaching on immigration. During the trip, students were able to meet people directly involved in immigration, including some who had been deported and some who were preparing to immigrate to the United States.

After they returned, the students shared their experiences at the 2016 Dominican University Caritas Veritas Symposium. Atzimba Rodriguez, a senior in psychology and criminology, spoke during the symposium of the effect that meeting people in Tijuana had on her. She commented, “If anything, we are a bridge, a bridge between two worlds.” While the border stood as a division between the United States and Mexico, the relationships that the students built while in Tijuana emerged as a sign of unity.

Catholic universities are welcoming immigrants to campus and ensuring that they have tools for success. Examples such as those of Saint Peter’s University, Christian Brothers University, and Dominican University show how the goal of providing equal opportunity is realized through programs that promote leadership and provide resources that aid immigrants, including undocumented students. In the midst of the debate on immigration and educational inequality, Catholic universities are making a difference by providing for the needs of students and educating the community on the complexity of these social issues.

Camilla MacKenzie is an undergraduate student at The Catholic University of America and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

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