The Catholic response to “illegal” immigration


Some 65,000 undocumented students graduate high school each year. Although firm data is unavailable, it is estimated that no more than 7,000 annually go on to attend college.

These students, often brought here as children through no choice of their own, live in fear of being discovered and deported, even though they have no criminal record (and in some cases no ability to speak the language of their “home” country).

Many do not realize they are undocumented until they graduate from high school and are told their path forward is now difficult or impossible.

I was part of a research team of faculty members from three universities who presented our findings on the situation of undocumented students in the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities to the U.S. Senate on Feb. 26.

The story of a law student from Santa Clara goes a long way in explaining why this work is so important. The valedictorian of his high school with an undergraduate degree in engineering, he tearfully shared his narrative of being taken away from his parents at age 5 by family members and brought to the United States (with one shoe, no money, and hungry). He called those in Jesuit education who had helped him achieve personal and professional development “lighthouses” in his stormy life-journey. His legal work now helps others in similar situations.

Our team conducted research over two years with a substantial grant from the Ford Foundation. The participating schools — Fairfield, Loyola Chicago, and Santa Clara Universities — each partnered with a demographically distinct institution in their region, St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, University of Detroit Mercy, and Loyola Marymount in L.A., to interview faculty, staff, administrators, and undocumented students themselves on the challenges they face and the experiences they have had navigating Jesuit higher education.

We also conducted an online survey across all 28 institutions, analyzing the data along social scientific, legal and moral tracks. As a result of the research, we drafted a public statement on the issue through the lens of Catholic social teaching and the historic ties between our network and first- and second-generation immigrants, which 25 university presidents signed — including not only the six partnering schools but others as varied as Georgetown, Fordham, University of San Francisco, Loyola New Orleans  and Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

Not only were political, ecclesiastical, academic and advocacy leaders present, but with the help of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, we arranged for almost 60 undergraduate students from Jesuit colleges around the country to meet with their representatives in the House and Senate to discuss the connection between higher education, civic engagement, ethical reflection and immigration reform.

Rep. Zoe Lofrgren (D-Calif.), a graduate of Santa Clara, publicly recognized the effort and the students during a hearing before the House Immigration and Border Control Subcomittee which was discussing migrant workers in the agriculture industries.

One in 10 members of the 113th Congress has a degree from a Jesuit institution, as do Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Our advocacy efforts and political networking were, therefore, intentionally bipartisan.

The Jesuit colleges are part of two umbrella groups – the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) and the wider Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU). Executives from both of these organizations spoke to the research and the fact that immigration is a priority issue for them in the coming years and decades.

I have some speaking engagements scheduled to discuss the Catholic response to “illegal” immigration in the coming months, and the Center for Faith and Public Life where I work is involved in another research project with communication scholars studying immigration rhetoric in parishes in New York. It is clear that care for the most marginalized is a duty for every practicing Christian. And while recognizing a nation has a right to protect its border, both local and universal magisterial teaching make clear that Jesus’ own words in the Good Samaritan parable, the fact that he himself was part of an immigrant (or at least “refugee” family), and the call to care for the widow, orphaned and oppressed, mandate that we respect the dignity of every human person, no matter where they were conceived and born on a map.

Part of this respect is working to foster development of the whole person so they can flourish in society, an endeavor closely related to St. Ignatius’ principle of cura personalis, care for the entire person.


The research findings are available on Fairfield’s CFPL website.


Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.