WASINGTON, D.C. — Before he joined more than 100 leaders of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities to sign statements of support for undocumented immigrant students, Jesuit Father Paul Fitzgerald, president of the University of San Francisco, came face to face with the human side of the immigration question.
One week before signing the Nov. 30 statements, the priest met with 15 undocumented students attending his university and heard their stories.
They had come from Latin America at a very young age with their parents. Many are Catholic, and some didn’t even know that they were undocumented immigrants until they were in high school.
“They’re wonderful young people, passionate about their studies,” he said in an interview with Crux. “They’re pursuing degrees to become nurses, advocates and attorneys. They want to give back to a society which has been so good to them.”
The priest said that encounter was for him, “a beautiful pastoral moment. For me, it was very emotional.”
But there was another aspect to his meeting with those students, in the wake of the election campaign, when candidate Donald Trump pledged to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and immediately begin deporting some of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, and in the uncertainty about what will unfold in the president-elect’s administration.
“I could see the fear in their eyes. The fear is not for themselves,” the university president said.
Fitzgerald explained the terrible Catch-22 situation those students find themselves in. To register for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which protected the students from immigration enforcement, enabling them to continue in school and get jobs, they had to register their names and addresses.
Now, besides the uncertainty of whether the DACA program will be continued, the priest said those students worry that they have put their parents and younger siblings at risk of deportation, since the government knows their family’s address and likely immigration status.
For the priest and the other Catholic university presidents signing the statements of support for the undocumented students, that provides the context for their action.
“We care about them…they are members of our community,” the priest said. “We will do everything within the law to protect and promote them.”
Fitzgerald was among 27 of the 28 presidents in the nation’s Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities to sign a statement noting their schools’ Catholic and Jesuit identities – that guides their commitment to uphold the dignity of every person, to work for the common good and to promote a living faith that works for justice – compelled them to express support for the poor and marginalized, which on their campuses include undocumented immigrant students. The statement was also signed by that association’s president, Jesuit Father Mike Sheeran.
“…Experience has shown us that our communities are immeasurably enriched by the presence, intelligence and committed contributions of undocumented students, as well as of faculty and staff of every color and from every faith tradition,” that statement said.
The statement from the Jesuit university and college leaders pledged support within the law for undocumented students on campuses, promoted retaining the DACA program, and promised to support and stand with students, faculty and staff regardless of their faith traditions, and to work to preserve the nation’s religious freedoms.
As a candidate, Trump had at one point suggested halting Muslims from entering the country, and later said that people from countries affected by terrorism would be subject to extreme vetting.
Fitzgerald was among the leaders of Jesuit institutions to sign a statement also issued on Nov. 30 by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, signed by more than 100 leaders in U.S. Catholic higher education.
That statement urged that students in their communities who have qualified for the DACA program be allowed to continue their studies without interruption, and that more students will have that same opportunity “to contribute their talents to our campuses.”
“Undocumented students need assistance in confronting legal and financial uncertainty and in managing the accompanying anxieties,” the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities statement said.
“We pledge to support these students – through our campus counseling and ministry support, through legal resources from those campuses with law schools and legal clinics, and through whatever other services we may have at our disposal.”
Both statements recognized Pope Francis’s words and witness emphasizing that immigrants are, like all people, children of God and brothers and sisters to each other.
The ACCU statement concluded, “We are committed to educating these young people, brought to the United States by their parents, who come to our universities to build for themselves and us a brighter future.”
Catholic university presidents interviewed by Crux noted that the statements were not addressed to President-elect Trump specifically.
“It’s for any and all policy makers and elected officials, who would attempt to compromise the most vulnerable members in our society,” said Timothy Law Snyder, the president of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, another Jesuit institution. He signed both statements.
Like Fitzgerald, Snyder was a principle author of the Jesuit statement, and he said that the statement was meant not only to show solidarity for undocumented students and encourage lawmakers to continue the DACA program, but also to educate the general public – including the more than 2 million alumni of those Jesuit institutions – about the issues at stake.
“We are here to support justice for them, and make sure they have the same access to education as anybody,” Snyder said.
Loyola Marymount’s president also emphasized what the undocumented students offer, not only to those universities and colleges, but to their nation.
“These are students who persevere. They honor American values. They revere them, they are proud of them. They have been raised here and educated here,” he said.
“They are set to contribute to our economy in ways that will benefit our nation, that will contribute to a greater America.”
After Trump was elected president, he said some of those students on his campus were fearful about what would happen to them and their loved ones because of their immigration status.
“Imagine waking up and having to worry that your family will be pulled apart,” Snyder said.
Monsignor Franklyn Casale, the president of St. Thomas University in Miami and the chairman of the board for the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, also underscored the importance of retaining the DACA program, which he said serves more than 700,000 students nationwide.
“If it’s repealed, it will not only destroy their education but their lives,” he said. The priest also emphasized the human side of the issue. “They’re our people…These are people of faith, coming here and trying to get a good Catholic education.”
The priest added the students are hard working and many are leaders on campus. “The education experience they’re getting is so precious to them,” he said. “At one time, it wasn’t possible for them…They really want to succeed.”
St. Thomas University has a history tied to immigration. It traces its roots to the Universidad de Santo Tomas de Villanueva, founded in 1946 in Havana, Cuba. After the revolution in that country, the Augustinians staffing that university were expelled in 1961 and founded a college in Miami that was later renamed as St. Thomas University.
Now 50 percent of its 5,000 students are Hispanic, and the university’s president said that signing a statement of support for undocumented students reflects his school’s history and mission.
“It comes out of a cry from our hearts,” Casale said. “Please allow us to embrace these students and give them a great education.”
That point was echoed by Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, who also signed the ACCU statement. Her school’s women’s college includes 45 undocumented immigrant students, mostly from Central and South America.
“These are magnificent women. They are among our best students,” she said, noting that they include young mothers who also work and are trying to support their families and make better lives for themselves and their children.
McGuire noted those students receive scholarships from a program called TheDream.US and from the university, and the students, who are anxious about what will unfold in the new administration, have been assured that scholarship support will continue.
Trinity’s president said it was important for the university presidents to advocate for those students. “This is a Catholic issue. This is truly about care and concern for human dignity,” she said.
She hopes that policy makers will see the moral side to this aspect of the immigration question. “This is a really important life issue. No matter what political side they’re on, they should be in favor of keeping these young people in school.”
John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, said the Catholic educational leaders’ support for those undocumented students demonstrates that the Church is not just concerned about pro-life and religious liberty issues, but also about care for the poor and immigrants.
Catholic University’s president said he does hope that the statements send a message to the incoming Trump administration and to other government leaders, about retaining the DACA program and about working for the just treatment of the nation’s immigrants.
“Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress and the presidency, I hope they can come up with an inviting, compassionate and generous vision for welcoming people to America, especially people like this,” Garvey said.
The incoming Trump administration has signaled moderation on some controversial issues from the campaign, and several Catholic university leaders interviewed by Crux expressed hope that the hard-line stance on immigration expressed by Trump as a candidate will evolve into more moderate policies.
For example, the president-elect has said he would not pursue his promised prosecution of Hillary Clinton for using a private email server.
In an Aug. 31 speech in Phoenix, Arizona, as a candidate, Trump said that on day one as president, he would take steps to remove “at least 2 million criminal aliens now inside the country.”
But while saying that “anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” and pledging to strike down President Obama’s executive orders on amnesty for certain immigrants, Trump in that speech also said, “We will treat everyone living or residing in our country with dignity. We will be fair, just and compassionate to all.”
The president of the University of San Francisco – who signed the statements supporting the undocumented students after hearing their stories – said he holds fast to the Christian virtue of hope regarding their future. The Jesuit priest said that in this Advent season, it’s important to remember that Jesus as a child was himself a refugee.
“We’re waiting for the advent of Christ who comes to us as a very poor person who can’t find shelter. This is how God chose to enter human history,” Fitzgerald said.
That story too must be remembered, he said.