Undocumented Students Ask Jesuit Higher Ed: “Just Us” or Justice?

More than three-quarters of administrators, faculty and staff at Jesuit colleges agree or strongly agree that “admitting, enrolling, and supporting undocumented students fits with the mission of the institution.” And yet 40% recently said there were no known programs or outreach to undocumented students of which they were aware. There is then an obvious disconnect between a theoretical “support” of these students and an informed and institutionalized approach on how best to serve them.
Immigration: Undocumented Students in Higher Education, a study led by Fairfield University, Loyola University Chicago and Santa Clara University, aimed to raise awareness of these issues and serve as a catalyst for further discussions both on policy in Washington, D.C., and across higher education—including beyond Jesuit and Catholic institutions.

In July 2010, the Ford Foundation provided Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life with a two-year $200,000 grant to study the situation of undocumented students in the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities. The researchers conducted a study in collaboration with the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University Chicago and faculty from Santa Clara University. Our sociological teams interviewed administrators, faculty, staff and undocumented students not only at our three campuses, but also at demographically distinct partner schools—one on each coast and one in the Midwest—to get as broad and textured a range as possible about the experiences these students have had within the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities network. A legal team explored all aspects of federal, state, and local law involving access and tuition. We conducted a wide range of interviews with faculty, staff, administrators and students across the country. We also created and analyzed an online survey with more than 100 participants in various roles at the 28 colleges.

As an outcome of the study, 25 Jesuit university presidents signed a statement affirming that they supported their institutions in continuing to welcome all students—whether documented citizens or not—as full members of their campus communities believing that to be in harmony with our collective identity, history and mission. Although there are obvious financial hurdles to providing any kind of systematized monetary support, the presidents were clear in their desire to foster a culture of understanding and acceptance for all students, regardless of residential status. With the help of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, our research team arranged for nearly 60 undergraduate students from Jesuit colleges around the country to meet with their representatives in the House and Senate to discuss the connections between higher education, civic engagement, ethical reflection and immigration reform. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a graduate of Santa Clara University, publicly recognized the effort and the students during a hearing before the House Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee focused on migrant workers in the agriculture industries.

Our policy conversations were intentionally bipartisan. One in 10 members of the 113th Congress has a degree from a Jesuit institution, as do such notable federal figures as Janet Napolitano, Antonin Scalia and Leon Panetta.

Undocumented students are certainly marginalized by larger societal forces. In our research, we found that often students within this population navigated the sometimes-treacherous seas of higher education with only one or two copilots, through an informal network of those particularly attuned to the situation. Often, a community “advocate” or “gatekeeper,” perhaps a trusted parish priest or guidance counselor with knowledge of the student’s status, would make a phone call to a personal contact within the college who would then help him or her apply, find some meager forms of financial aid (since loans and grants are largely inaccessible without a social security number), and provide academic, emotional, psychological and professional support through the years. One sees how tenuous the system is when a link in the chain retires, changes positions, or leaves the institution.

The students sometimes did not engage with peers or professors outside class because they feared the social stigma that comes with somehow being “different” or because a distrust of authorities had been instilled in them for years or decades. They may be the first to go to college in their families, and many still have responsibilities in the home to care for siblings, contribute to the finances of the household, or hold down one or multiple jobs, while commuting, keeping up with their schoolwork, and struggling through all of this in silence. Some become disengaged with college life. Often, they have had a parent questioned or deported with no criminal record perhaps beyond a speeding ticket, and almost all live in families with mixed residential status–siblings, cousins, grandparents, perhaps even a parent who may be a citizen, while the students themselves are not.

When they are given opportunities, some have “survivors’ guilt” seeing other capable young adults they know in their communities who have not been provided the same chance at a better life, and deeply felt internal conflict results. This can increase isolation and hinder psychological and spiritual well-being, and perhaps academic success.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler vs. Doe that a K-12 education was guaranteed to undocumented youth under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment, it is estimated that 65,000 of these students graduate high school annually. While precise tracking is impossible, most analysts believe that no more than 7,000 of these graduates go on to any form of higher education. Of this small percentage, the vast majority enter the community college system. And of this number, many eventually drop out due to costs or lack of institutional, personal or educational support.

Yet, despite these daunting statistics, stories of success proliferate. Our work on this and related projects has put us in touch with an extensive network of intelligent, capable, committed and moral young adults, as well as many documented citizens who remain engaged in the conversation out of altruistic inclinations, a thirst for justice and what they see as humanitarian responsibility.

The current discussions about immigration are not new to our era. Nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment are recurrent and tragic themes in our national history–threadbare patches which continue to recur in the marvelous tapestry of our societal fabric, but thankfully without ever completely rending it to tatters. And while the paths forward concerning policies on undocumented students are generally limited, contingent and imperfect solutions to a multivalent and complex problem, what remains immutable and undeniable for any person of good will is the imperative to take into account the narratives and experiences of the most vulnerable and voiceless. Our study hopefully helped to amplify these students’ stories and to analyze the nuances of their situation.

Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J. is director of Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and professor of sociology. Michael M. Canaris teaches in the religious studies department and holds an administrative position in the center.



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