Groundbreaking study on undocumented students in Jesuit higher education

Groundbreaking study on undocumented students in Jesuit higher education

by Nina Riccio and Meg McCaffrey

Guadalupe’s mom needs dental work, but has to pay out of pocket because she can’t get insurance. Her dad drives a car that is insured through a friend. Though both pay taxes, they can’t get the refunds they are entitled to because they have no Social Security numbers. Guadalupe’s brother needed financial aid to attend a state school. Forget it. Turns out the undocumented cannot receive any federal financial aid, including work study stipends.

Negotiating routine obstacles has become second nature to the family of six, who came to the U.S. illegally some 14 years ago. Yet now, 18-year-old Guadalupe is a first-year student at Fairfield, receiving financial aid, studying information systems, and very hopeful that things will change for undocumented students like her by the time she graduates. Her optimism stems from President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows young, undocumented students who came to the U.S. as children to go to school, work, and obtain driver’s licenses without fear of deportation.

“At first, I didn’t want to identify myself,” admitted Guadalupe, who is active with the group CT Students for a Dream, which advocates for a path to legalization. “I thought people would look at me differently, and my parents were afraid. But now I feel that the more we [students] speak, the more our voices are heard. We can make a change.”

To help students like Guadalupe, Jesuit university and college presidents, senators, and members of Congress joined more than 50 students and dozens of faculty at a February 26 event in Washington, D.C., “Immigration: Undocumented Students in Higher Education.” There, researchers unveiled the findings of a Ford Foundation funded study, Immigrant Student National Position Paper, an endeavor led by Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life in collaboration with Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Urban Research and Learning and Santa Clara University in California. The study proposes a new model of leadership in higher education regarding access to education, particularly for the undocumented. Many of these students were brought to the U.S. as children by parents who either overstayed a visa or entered the country illegally.

Of the 65,000 undocumented American students who graduate high school annually, roughly five to 10 percent enter postsecondary education. A handful at the top of the class are awarded merit-based scholarships or find a way to finance attendance at a Jesuit institution, with their storied history of serving immigrants. But even for those lucky few, the problems persist. Most cannot study abroad; even with DACA, many rightfully fear the possibility of not being readmitted to the U.S. Many cannot get an internship without a Social Security number. And graduates who wish to pursue a career in which they need licensing, such as nursing, teaching, or engineering, find they cannot get the credentialing or clinical experience they need to move forward.

Students and Fr. von Arx in Washington, D.C.;

Students and Fr. von Arx in Washington, D.C.

“In high school, my teacher encouraged me very strongly to apply for an internship that Sikorsky had posted,” said Guadalupe, a solid student who had an excellent chance of landing the prestigious position. “I filled out the forms using my parents’ tax ID number, but that was rejected. Finally, I had to tell my teacher about my family’s status, and of course then the internship was not open to me.”

The presidents of 25 Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) schools recently signed a moral statement pledging their support to the education and care of undocumented students, and many were at the D.C. event to support these individuals who were brought to the U.S. as young children by parents.

Recognizing the urgency of this immigration- related problem, the study – featuring in-depth interviews with undocumented students, community advocates, and university staff members – examined undocumented students’ complex lives across the 28 American Jesuit colleges and universities, where there is no consistent policy regarding undocumented students.

“At the heart of the Immigrant Student National Position Paper is a call for improved institutional practices at Jesuit institutions in the United States to help these young people flourish on campus and off,” said Project Leader Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., director of the Center for Faith and Public Life and professor of sociology. “Ultimately, this project presents a way of proceeding on this area of immigration that informs and helps shape the national educational and political discourse. Our findings revealed that a pathway to citizenship will not solve all of the challenges these students face. Additional policies that address the needs of the students as well as their families are critical.”

Federal law does not prohibit the admission of undocumented students to public universities or colleges; states may admit or bar undocumented students from enrolling as a matter of policy or through legislation. And while 14 states (including Connecticut) allow these students to pay in-state tuition, others specifically deny them this lower-cost option.

“If the whole Jesuit system of higher education were to become 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,” Fr. Ryscavage emphasized.

Project recommendations include support for reform of immigration law to include a path to citizenship for undocumented students; a modification of admissions materials to eliminate the need for a Social Security number; clear identification of aid to undocumented students; and a database of alumni who were undocumented who can assist undocumented students with their careers. Researchers also recommended training university staff on the needs of these students. Project Manager Melissa Quan, associate director of the Center for Faith and Public Life and director of Service Learning said, “We see these individuals’ promise and want to help them reach their full human potential. It is our responsibility.”

Top photo: Guadalupe ’16