Jesuit Study on Undocumented Students

In this Saturday, March 10, 2012 photo, demonstrators hold signs during a rally for undocumented students at Daley Plaza in C
In this Saturday, March 10, 2012 photo, demonstrators hold signs during a rally for undocumented students at Daley Plaza in Chicago. The movement, which started a few years ago during the push for the Dream Act, now has thousands of members, and well organized networks in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

A 19th century Jesuit priest first used the term "social justice" to describe how the Church should confront problems of inequality in society that arose during the Industrial Revolution. Today, the Jesuits continue to fight for social justice.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the stand on immigration reform. A recent study underwritten by The Ford Foundation and led by Fairfield University's Center for Faith and Public Life highlights the struggle of undocumented students to get a college education. The study, entitled, "Immigration: Undocumented Students in Higher Education," focuses on recommendations from Jesuit colleges and universities on ways to help these students.

Of the 65,000 undocumented American students who graduate high school annually, roughly 5-10 percent of these students enter post-secondary education. A handful at the top of their class are awarded merit-based scholarships or find a way to finance attendance at a Jesuit institution, with their storied history of serving immigrants.

Guadalupe, an undocumented student at Fairfield University, came to this country from Mexico when she was four-years-old. She went to a vocational high school in Bridgeport, Conn., and thought that her access to higher education would be severely limited because of her immigration status. "I belonged to Connecticut Students for a Dream, a group focused on helping high school students who are here illegally attend college. That's where I first learned about Fairfield University," she said.

Fairfield helped her complete her application and then found financial aid for her. She is now a freshman and hopes to get a degree in information systems. "There are other undocumented students at Fairfield who are fighting for what I am fighting for -- a chance to become a productive member of society, the opportunity to graduate from college and get a job," she said.

While the Obama Administration's executive order halts deportations of young immigrants like Guadalupe, who were brought to this country illegally, it still does not offer them a path to U.S. residency or citizenship. "I can't apply for an internship that would involve travel. I am not eligible for work-study programs. I don't know if I will be able to get a work permit because the Deferred Action status will be up for review in two years and no one knows what will happen," Guadalupe noted.

The immigrant student study led by Fairfield University seeks to address Guadalupe's concerns. It points out that these bright, motivated young immigrants live in fear that they, or a member of their family, may be deported. By requiring a Social Security number to register and limiting their access to financial aid, they can't pursue their dreams of attending college. We are losing a whole generation of teachers, nurses, physicians and engineers. If they do attend college, they often feel disconnected from fellow students and professors. Often, they have nowhere to turn for help.

At the heart of the immigrant student study is a call for improved institutional practices at Jesuit institutions in the United States to help these young people flourish on campus and off. Ultimately, this project presents a way of proceeding on this area of immigration that informs and helps shape the national educational discourse. If the whole Jesuit system of higher education becomes fully engaged in the challenges and issues of undocumented students, perhaps private, public and Catholic colleges and universities could be emboldened to do so as well.

The presidents of 25 Jesuit Colleges and Universities signed a moral statement, pledging their support to the education and care of undocumented students, many of whom were brought to the U.S. as young children by parents who either overstayed a legal visa or entered the country without the authorization of the federal government. As Jesuit institutions, we have a moral obligation to champion the cause of these students.

We cannot let undocumented students languish in a void without access to higher education. Nor can we offer them solutions that are only temporary. Our findings revealed that a pathway to citizenship can help, of course, but it will not solve all the challenges these students face. Only through comprehensive immigration reform and educational access will these students and their families be able to fully contribute to American society.