Lizbeth Mateo, an undocumented immigrant, is now a first-year law student at Santa Clara University in California, after participating in a border protest last summer. Photos of Mateo by Steve Pavey via Flickr.

Jesuit Colleges and Universities Help Undocumented Students Dream of a Better Future
As a senior in high school, Frances (the name she chose to use for this story) had barely a notion of what a Jesuit was, let alone what a Jesuit university was all about. And yet, she and untold numbers of students like her have come to illustrate an increasingly visible part of the Jesuit mission in higher education.

Now a senior at Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution in Connecticut, Frances is undocumented. Her school and many other Jesuit colleges and universities have recently ramped up their advocacy on behalf of so-called “dreamers”— those like Frances who were brought to the United States as children unlawfully by their parents.  She said in a telephone interview, “I fly under the radar.”

Earlier this year, the presidents of 25 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United issued a statement declaring their support for such students and other undocumented young people. They rooted their concern in the fundamental mission and identity of Jesuit schools, affirming that these are “morally committed environments where our students are inspired and encouraged to understand and address issues of justice, fairness, political involvement, and a preferential option for those whom society has marginalized.” In that light they pointed to “those living without authorization in the United States.”

In the wake of this appeal, Jesuit institutions have not only renewed their calls for federal immigration reform but have also searched for ways to better understand and serve this largely hidden population of students.

“These kids are lost in the system of higher education,” said Jesuit Father Richard Ryscavage, director of Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life.  Pointing out that few if any school administrators would be able to identify those students, the Jesuit added, “It’s a very shadowy world.”

According to most estimates, approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year in this country, and somewhere between five and ten percent go on to post-secondary schools.

In taking that step, the students encounter a slew of obstacles, Fr. Ryscavage emphasized. For one thing, they do not qualify for federal or state financial aid, and that alone can make a college education, certainly a private one, all but impossible. Thanks to an executive order signed by President Obama in June 2012, eligible undocumented young adults are able to temporarily avoid deportation and even obtain work permits. Still, they must tread very carefully, partly in fear of revealing the identities of parents and siblings who remain deportable at any moment.

“I keep my [immigration] status to myself,” said Frances, who commutes to campus from her family home and came to the U.S. from South America (she’d rather not say which country) at age two. She noted that discussions in class or otherwise with fellow students sometimes turn to the impassioned subject of immigration, and she occasionally hears a belligerent comment about “illegals.” She stays quiet. “It’s difficult at times. I just keep my emotions in check,” says the chemistry major.

While most undocumented students remain unidentified, some have chosen to publicly speak out. Lizbeth Mateo, now a first-year law student at Santa Clara University, took part in a risky border protest in August. Along with other activists who had been brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children, she flew into Mexico and then tried to reenter the United States by crossing the border.

Jesuit Father Sean CarrollAccompanied by religious leaders, including Jesuit Father Sean Carroll, the young men and women walked to the official pedestrian crossing point and requested humanitarian parole to rejoin their family members and communities within the United States. Their request for humanitarian parole was denied, and Mateo and the other immigrants were held in Eloy, Ariz., for several weeks.

Jesuit Father Michael Engh, president of Santa Clara University, released a statement of support for the protesters, calling Mateo “one of our courageous incoming law students” and said he had “contacted our local representatives requesting their assistance with this matter on behalf of our student.”

The protesters asked for political asylum and were freed while they await their day in court, which allowed Mateo to begin law school at Santa Clara as planned.

“I want the government to recognize that there is a group of people, Dreamers, who grew up in this country and belong here because these are their homes,” Mateo said. “They shouldn't have to go through what we went through. They should come home.”

Faith in Action: Responding to Undocumented Students’ Needs

Jesuit schools are taking various kinds of action to help these students. This past summer, Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine announced that it would accept applications for admission from undocumented immigrants — the first medical school in the nation to do so.

Loyola University Chicago medical school students“We’re happy to be the first, but we hope we’re not the last,” said Linda Brubaker, MD, the medical school’s dean. “As a medical school built on Catholic and Jesuit values we have a tradition of reaching out and encouraging the growth and development of future doctors from all walks of life. If a Jesuit Catholic school doesn't do something like this, who would?”

Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life has studied the situation of undocumented students at the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities nationwide.

At Santa Clara University, a special scholarship fund for undocumented students has been established. Sponsored by Santa Clara’s Jesuit Community, the fund helps provide tuition, room and board for about four freshmen and one transfer student each year.  The scholarships are paid for by the Jesuits themselves—through their personal salaries—and amount to over $1 million a year. While other universities have established funds for undocumented immigrants, the Santa Clara fund is believed to be the most expansive program of its kind for undocumented students in U.S. higher education.

The study found that slightly over three-quarters of college staff (from admissions, financial aid and student services) strongly agreed that reaching out to undocumented students “fits within the [Jesuit] mission of the institution.” At the same time, the report made it clear that the nationwide response by Jesuit schools to undocumented students is just beginning to take shape.

SCU Jesuit CommunityThe researchers identified some “best practices” in that regard. These include designating admissions staff to work with prospective students who are undocumented; training career counselors to give the students informed advice on what they could do after graduation (some professions such as teaching are off limits to those without legal authorization); and helping them apply for private sources of financial aid.

Currently, undocumented students often find their way to Jesuit institutions through informal support networks such as a parish priest who knows someone in the admissions office. Through such a channel, Guadalupe, another undocumented student who commutes to Fairfield from her family home, wound up at that institution after graduating from a tech school. “I wanted to go to college, but didn’t know what to do,” the sophomore recalled. She also received generous financial aid from the school. Likewise, Frances won a full tuition scholarship awarded by Fairfield to nearby inner-city students with exceptional academic records.

These and other efforts are seen as putting flesh on what the Society of Jesus described at its 32nd General Congregation, in 1975, as the “service of faith” and “the promotion of justice.” Jesuit leaders in this country are looking at immigration — including the push for a “path to citizenship” — as one urgent way of meeting the faith-and-justice challenge. In late June, the U.S. Jesuit Conference vowed to continue pressing the issue with elected officials “until just, comprehensive, and humane immigration reform becomes a reality for all our undocumented brothers and sisters.”

With reporting from additional sources including the Los Angeles Times and USA Today.

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