WASHINGTON — Fifteen years ago, the president of Dominican University, just outside Chicago, thought comprehensive immigration reform was right around the corner.
That’s when the university began financially supporting undocumented students simply because, as Donna Carroll put it: “It was the right thing to do.”
“I assumed that by the time these students were juniors or seniors this would all be sorted out,” the university president said. But now, as the path to citizenship for these students remains unclear, she said she’s discouraged by how “protracted and prolonged the immigration process is.”
“It’s been frustrating to have it so politicized,” she told Catholic News Service Sept. 4.
Carroll, who advocates for immigration reform, is the first to acknowledge “it’s a complicated issue” and also admits that her perspective as a university president is different from that of a lawyer or politician, since academic leaders are focused on developing and promoting talent and also making sure potential talent isn’t wasted.
She said she feels the strongest affirmation from students who see their university “making a strong statement” and providing a place where undocumented students feel safe and supported.
She’s hardly alone in her efforts, either. Carroll has had the support of the school’s founding order, the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, and other Catholic university presidents who have made Catholic social teaching the impetus behind their support of undocumented students.
This year, Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine became the first medical school to admit undocumented students.
These school leaders are moving forward amid the absence of clear immigration reform legislation from Congress, which has discussed the issue but not moved on it. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Sept. 2 that Congress might tackle immigration reform next year if the conditions are right.
The long-discussed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act or DREAM Act, which would allow children of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States at an early age to become legal residents and qualify for in-state college tuition, was introduced in Congress in 2001 but has failed to advance.
Currently, at least 18 states have provisions allowing in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, and in 2012 President Barack Obama issued Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides undocumented students with relief from deportation and the authorization to work but does not confer citizenship or provide access to federal aid.
A 2013 study by researchers from Fairfield University, Loyola University Chicago, and Santa Clara University found that about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, but only 5-10 percent of them pursue a college education.
They primarily said they could not afford the tuition since they are not eligible for federal loans, but others did not want to reveal their undocumented status. Some were afraid of discrimination, and others did not realize they can attend college in the US.
Stephanie Zavala, an undocumented Dominican University senior majoring in sociology and women and gender studies, always assumed she would go to college. She was accepted at the schools she applied to, but realized she would not be able to afford them.
Zavala, who came to the United States with her family from Mexico when she was 2, got in touch with a local group that helps Latino families and was linked with a private donor, who enabled her to attend Dominican University, where she had already received an academic scholarship.
She told CNS Sept. 5 that she hopes to get her master’s degree in social work and provide animal therapy for children with autism.
For now, she said she sometimes looks around in class and can hardly believe she is there.
“It’s hard to describe. It’s so powerful. My parents are proud of me, and I appreciate all the help I’ve been given,” she said.
In the past 15 years, Dominican University has committed about $3 million to support undocumented students. This year, the university has 28 self-identified undocumented students. The average institutional award for these students is $16,671 or 48 percent of tuition and fees.
“We are always cobbling together those dollars to fill that gap,” Carroll said, noting that the school has been helped through partnerships, including one with Thedream.us, a national scholarship fund for immigrant students.
David Fike, president of Marygrove College in Detroit, also has advocated for undocumented students. He said the college, founded by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has a fund to support students who have faced extraordinary obstacles such as homelessness, being cut off from family support or being undocumented.
He described undocumented students as “amazing” primarily because they are “so appreciative of the opportunity to attain a college education.”
Fike told CNS that helping undocumented students is something Catholic higher education leaders can get behind because of their call to “be living examples of welcoming the other as the Gospel calls us to do, but also as leaders who take very seriously our responsibility to form and inform citizens.”
Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, said Catholic colleges and universities have made inroads in helping immigrant students through scholarships and raising awareness.
This work will not go away anytime soon, he stressed.
“Universities are primarily in the business of educating,” he said, adding that even if immigration reform changed tomorrow, the challenge would remain to “help people change their ways.”