How Catholic colleges can and should help DREAMers

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Article Hispanic Catholics Immigration Social Justice Young Adults
One university president shares tips on how to welcome and support undocumented students.

My involvement with immigration reform started with one student on a bicycle in a snow storm. How else, I learned, could he get to school without a driver’s license, which was not an option for an undocumented student in Illinois in 2007? Neither was a campus job, though he was an honors student majoring in economics. He asked for my help, tentatively at first—not for himself, but for the dream of citizenship—and so it all began.

In recent years, I have participated on immigration panels, spoken at conferences and rallies, endorsed legislation; I even did a CNN interview. But for me it is all, and has always been, about our students—understanding their stories, encouraging their leadership, admiring their courage. These DREAMers have risked so much in the pursuit of justice and opportunity. How could I not have the courage to stand beside them?

It is estimated that there are approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high school each year—talented, industrious students with the same dreams of college and family and careers as their classmates. In 2011 Gov. Pat Quinn signed the Illinois DREAM Act, making Illinois the first state in the country with a private scholarship fund for undocumented students. And in 2012 President Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum, which provides undocumented students with relief from deportation and the authorization to work. But DACA does not confer citizenship; it does not provide access to federal aid; nor does it give any status to the family members of undocumented students.

Like many Catholic institutions, the history of Dominican University is rooted in immigrant communities, initially the Irish-led miners of the rural Midwest. When the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters moved the college from Wisconsin to Illinois in 1922, it was to give the opportunities of higher education to the many; with the understanding that neither wealth, nor age, nor race would be of any advantage, or provide a hindrance. Currently, first-generation-to-college students represent 57 percent of the Dominican freshman class. Forty percent of Dominican’s undergraduate student body is Latino, which is significant in a state where 84 percent of undocumented residents are Latino.

When Dominican first began financially supporting undocumented students more than 15 years ago, it was a stop gap, the right thing to do with the presumption that comprehensive immigration reform was around the corner. Since the boy, the bicycle, and the snowstorm, Dominican has committed almost $3 million to support undocumented students. That support includes merit scholarships, restricted need-based scholarships, Sinsinawa Dominican emergency funds, and some parish assistance.

This is a leadership moment for Catholic higher education and for presidents, in particular. Mission compels us to push for comprehensive immigration reform—to give voice to the wasted potential. And, at least in my case, the response has been uplifting. The sisters are enormously supportive. Parishes are encouraging, and even those alums and donors who may disagree understand the university’s stand in the context of its Catholic Dominican mission and the tenets of Catholic social teaching. In fact, just recently, a friend of the university, also involved in immigration reform, donated $1 million—for our special students.

So what lessons have we learned over the past few years about creating a welcoming campus for DREAMers?

1. When and how an institution asks for a Social Security number sends an important message—later is better.

2. It is the structure of financial aid awards, with an emphasis on merit scholarships, that makes college affordable.

3. The curriculum and campus life need to recognize the experiences of the undocumented.

4. And finally, these students need enough company and the space to lie low or speak up as they choose. The DISC (Dominican Immigrant Student Collective) encourages the latter.

Other points of service that encourage student success include bilingual admissions counseling, savvy academic advising and career guidance, ministry outreach to local parishes, and responsive financial planning. Ultimately, however, it is a matter of institutional disposition—and invention. For instance, this summer Dominican will introduce a student stipend program to make it possible for undocumented students to participate as orientation leaders and conference coordinators.

So, what is the bottom line? As Catholic university leaders and individuals of influence, we have a choice. We can lead with fear, viewing higher education and career access as limited resources—or we can lead with hope, trusting that, given the right set of circumstances, opportunity multiplies like the loaves and the fishes.  I learned that lesson from one student on a bicycle in a snowstorm.

Image: Photo courtesy of Dominican University