Should Colleges Help Undocumented Students?

A look at why many Catholic institutions are doing just that.

Creative Commons

July 21, 2014

The unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border has propelled immigration back to the forefront of our political discourse. There are, of course, already hundreds of thousands of undocumented children in our country, some of whom graduate from high school and want to enter college. What can and should institutions of higher education do?

Over the last few years at my Roman Catholic university, we have begun to act, both admitting and financially supporting undocumented students. It may seem risky, but as Donna Carroll, our president at Dominican University, always says, "It’s the right thing to do."

Over the past few years, Carroll has become a national leader in advocating for more opportunities for undocumented students and in support of the Dream Act (a bill that would provide permanent residency status to people who arrived here illegally as minors and graduated from a U.S. high school). In fact, many Catholic universities are not just working to help undocumented students but taking leadership roles in efforts to change U.S. immigration policy on this issue.

I teach at Dominican. I am not a Catholic, and I didn’t know much about Catholic social teaching or mission-driven institutions when I took the job. Over the past few years, however, I have come to recognize both the promises and challenges of linking mission to institutional policy. The promises emerge because a clear sense of mission enables you to enact and then defend real change. The challenges follow quickly when you stake out a public position on such politically charged issues as immigration rights, but if you truly recognize a mission-driven moment, the risks must be borne.

Right now, undocumented students can and do attend both public and private institutions in the United States. According to a recent study by researchers from Fairfield University, Loyola University Chicago, and Santa Clara University and sponsored by the Ford Foundation, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school every year. Between 5 and 10 percent of those students enter an institution of higher education.

The barriers these students face are both cultural and financial. Many are hesitant to reveal their undocumented status, fearing discrimination, or simply do not know that they can go to college. When Arianna Salgado, now a student at Dominican and an activist, went to talk to her high-school guidance counselor, she was told that she could not go to college without a Social Security number. Arianna found out that wasn’t true only because she luckily met the right people after she decided to become an activist on immigration issues. Many other students aren’t so lucky.

Once accepted, the bigger problem is paying for college. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid or most state support. State versions of Dream Acts, such as the one we have in Illinois, as well as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum, have helped but not solved the problem. Some states now have programs that try to provide financial aid for undocumented college students, but most of those students are largely on their own.

Well, not exactly on their own. This is where leadership matters. Donna Carroll recognized it was time to act during the winter of 2007 when she met a student biking to school in a snowstorm. In the ensuing conversation, the student, David, talked about his difficulty in getting a driver’s license because he was undocumented.

David’s willingness to "come out," the language used by many students when they talk about revealing their undocumented status, took both courage and trust. This may be where the relative smallness of Dominican comes into play. I can’t imagine being willing to tell anything deeply personal, let alone something that might put me in legal jeopardy, to the president of my large undergraduate institution. Here, though, an individual contact between a student and the president could change the course of the university. After that meeting, Carroll went to panels, then rallies, then started speaking about legislation. Eventually she ended up on CNN. The issue has changed her life and public profile. Perhaps most important, she has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help undocumented students attend Dominican.

Dominican is far from alone. Many public and private universities from around the country are doing their best to help these students obtain and afford an education. The Catholic institutions, however, urged on by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, have especially powerful rationales to support their public positions on this controversial subject.

And it is controversial. For many people, these students are "illegals," "aliens," and criminals. Critics argue that to provide them with financial aid, even private dollars, is to take money away from law-abiding "real" Americans. The Rev. Daniel Groody, an expert in Catholic social teaching and immigration at the University of Notre Dame who has been outspoken on these issues, regularly gets hate mail demanding to know why he’s supporting these "illegals." Fortunately, Father Groody and others can answer such questions by citing the mission of the university and the religious orders, history, and Catholic social teaching.

Advocates for supporting undocumented students at Catholic universities often start by citing the traditions of their order and their charism—the specific gift or calling of a religious order. Arvid C. Johnson, president of the University of St. Francis, in Joliet, Ill., said the Franciscan charism is to "go where the need is greatest." These students have the greatest need, he said, so the university is now status-blind in its admission policy. In early April, a student group on the campus premiered a video at a university symposium called, "Be Not Afraid: Dreamers at USF," followed by an intense series of conversations among students, faculty, and staff about these issues.

Pragmatism helps, too. Philip Hale, vice president for government affairs at Loyola University Chicago, notes that even the most politically conservative alumni "are trained in the Jesuit tradition of social justice," and they respond to arguments based on that tradition. But it’s also helpful that the undocumented students admitted to Loyola’s medical school will, upon completing their residencies, be required to work as doctors in an underserved Illinois community for a few years. The idea is that both the students and Illinois will benefit.

Many institutions look to their history. Elizabeth Ortiz, vice president for institutional diversity and equity at DePaul University, talked about the Vincentian mission and the example of St. Vincent DePaul, who died in 1660. "St. Vincent looked at the social issues of his time and created orphanages and hospitals and other charities," he said. "We’re trying to apply that to now." At numerous universities, officials with whom I discussed undocumented students mentioned the 19th-century origins of America’s Catholic universities, founded specifically to provide educational opportunities to newly arrived Catholic immigrants. How could such an institution ignore the plight of needy immigrants today?

Catholic social teaching provides a deeper, theological argument for why action is necessary. Father Groody emphasizes that like all people, undocumented students are "children of God." He argues that everyone has the right to such basic needs as food, clothing, housing, and not only education, but the right to "take that education as far as possible." This means college has to be accessible. Thinking about the word "Catholic" in its etymological root meaning "universal," he says, requires the church and its institutions to look beyond national borders and think about international common good.

Claire Noonan, vice president for mission and ministry at Dominican, notes that a primary tenet of Catholic social teaching is that the dignity of the human person precedes all other rights and laws. The state may control its borders, but cannot legislate who is a full human person and who an "alien" or an "illegal."

To many, that kind of deep moral commitment might seem dangerous. The theological underpinnings of the Catholic support of a socially progressive cause such as immigration reform have also pushed some Catholic colleges to support socially conservative positions, such as resisting the contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act. Catholic teachings defy easy characterization of "right" or "left," "liberal" or "conservative." So do Catholic colleges and universities.

Catholic colleges must commit to a core and challenging set of beliefs, but they do get to choose what to emphasize and where to concentrate resources. At their best, faced with the same financial pressures as all other institutions, Catholic colleges and universities have a mission that allows them to make arguments about justice, even ones that might risk alienating donors of particular political ideologies or even running counter to ideas held by some within the church. Dominican University provided health care to domestic partners for same-sex couples years ago because the universal right to health care, part of the dignity of the person, trumped other concerns. As Donna Carroll notes, "As the infrastructure of higher education become more and more like a business, it’s harder to take a stand that may compromise the business." Commitment to mission allows you to take such stands because they are right, not because they are wise.

On the other hand, while politically risky and potentially alienating to donors, this stand may emerge as the wisest business decision that a Catholic college could make. Increasingly, faced with a growing Latino population of college-age students and national pressure for immigration reform, Catholic colleges and their supporters are trying to help undocumented students now and to change national policy, so that in the future they would not have to rely on private donors. This builds connections between the largest growing population of Catholics in America and the institutions that will rely on that population for their future student base.

Ultimately, the students themselves are the real drivers of change here. They are taking the risks, coming out of the shadows, finding allies, demanding change, and organizing. When persuading skeptical donors or appearing on national television, Carroll says she always thinks about David, Arianna, and the many other students she has met. "They are so courageous," she says. "As educators, how can we not stand with them?"

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess? and he writes on occasion for The Chronicle and Vitae. Follow him on Twitter @lollardfish.