DREAMing at Catholic Colleges

With no legislation on the horizon to clear a path for students in the U.S. illegally, Catholic colleges quietly step up efforts to support the undocumented.

January 31, 2012

WASHINGTON — At a gathering of leaders of Roman Catholic colleges here Monday, Sister Diane Kennedy, vice president for mission and ministry at Dominican University, proudly described 17 of Dominican’s students.

Of the 17, several have achieved high academic honors, Kennedy said. And two, so far, have been arrested by immigration officials and spent time in jail.

All 17 students are undocumented immigrants, and the college is spending $274,000 of its own money to help them pay tuition. At a session of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Kennedy, a former archbishop of Los Angeles, and other Catholic leaders urged other colleges to follow Dominican’s example.

Catholic colleges and the Catholic church, led by Cardinal Roger Mahony, who retired as archbishop of Los Angeles in 2011, are quietly stepping up efforts to enroll and assist students whose parents came to the United States illegally. In recent months, Mahony has held meetings with college leaders and students to find other ways to engage institutions on the issue. The church is planning to distribute several versions of an immigration curriculum, so that colleges can cover the issue from a Catholic perspective in a wide range of classes.

In remarks to a small group of college presidents and vice presidents, Mahony cast advocacy for immigrants as part of the heritage of Catholic colleges and a core expression of Catholic values.

“Many of your institutions began because young men and women who are immigrants, especially from certain Catholic backgrounds, were not permitted to attend other denomination-founded and -supported institutions,” Mahony said. “Much of our history as a college and university system starts with that outreach to immigrants.”

Advocacy brings challenges. Students who lack the legal right to live in the U.S. are not eligible for federal financial aid, so any financial help must come from the colleges themselves. And some presidents, even if they agree with the church’s position, fear negative reaction from their board of trustees or the public. Critics (and some political candidates) are quick to argue that such students are "illegal aliens" and lawbreakers undeserving of assistance. 

At Dominican, the college began sending undocumented students to outside sources for scholarship money in 2006, Kennedy said. By the 2008-9 academic year, the college realized “there was such a landslide of need out there” that they needed to develop institutional policies to help.

Dominican’s student body is 28 percent Hispanic. The university is known in Chicago as a “welcoming, hospitable place” for immigrants, legal and illegal, Kennedy said. Some have become activists for the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children after they graduate from college.

Undocumented students are admitted to the university using the same criteria as all others, Kennedy said: academic merit, promise and leadership potential. Although the college requests that students fill out a paper copy of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for institutional use, the documents aren’t transmitted to the government, and the students receive only non-need-based aid.

David Koelsch, director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy, said that state laws often lead illegal immigrants to seek out private colleges and universities. Some states have passed their own version of the DREAM Act, allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. But Michigan has not, and private schools that provide aid without regard to immigration status have drawn such students because they are relatively cheaper, he said.

“There may be a perception that all undocumented students are poor immigrants, and that’s not true,” Koelsch said. For some, private institutions are affordable after modest financial aid, he said.

Many Catholic colleges help undocumented students in some way, and Mahony is gathering ideas on how to be more effective as an advocate for such students and their education. But fear of a public outcry means some presidents will not speak publicly.

At Detroit Mercy, the administration has not hesitated to speak out despite occasional negative reaction, Koelsch said. “So far, I think people appreciate our courageous stand,” he said.

Dominican’s president, Donna Carroll, spoke at a DREAM Act rally in Chicago in April and warned the Board of Trustees beforehand, Kennedy said.

“Lightning did not strike,” Kennedy said. “The board did not discipline her, and she did not lose donors. Her point is, if you place the argument before your donors, they will support these students.”

In many cases, the students are taking on a greater leadership role than the administration. ““They are very courageous students, they are very talented students, and they are showing us the way,” Kennedy said.

To illustrate her point, she told the group of college leaders about David Ramirez, a Dominican senior who traveled to Georgia in May to “come out” as undocumented and protest the passage of one of the nation’s strictest immigration laws. Arrested, Ramirez spent the night in jail, but immigration officials did not pursue the case. He posted bail and returned to Chicago, she said, just in time for graduation.


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