Fairfield University supports undocumented students in higher education

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Along with 24 other Jesuit universities in the United States, Fairfield University has promised to support undocumented students in higher education.

Undocumented students are individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children by parents without a renewed visa or by parents who entered the country illegally.

On Feb. 26, around 15 Fairfield students and faculty members met with senators, Congress members and presidents from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

Senior Sarah Joseph was one of the students who attended the event in hopes of discussing the plight of undocumented students.

“I am interested in undocumented students in higher education, as well as how I can help enforce change for others,” said Joseph.

Another attendee, Students for Social Justice member Melissa Hannequin ‘13, also wanted to advocate for immigration reform. “It was great seeing our Fairfield faculty at the head of a Senate meeting room, in front of many influential people – Jesuit university presidents, advocates, media and students – and about such a worthy cause,” she said.

At the gathering, researchers unveiled their findings in an Immigrant Student National Position Paper, which focused on the obstacles that undocumented American students go through in higher education.

President Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., then signed a statement guaranteeing the University’s support of undocumented students.

According to the study of the 65,000 undocumented American students who graduate high school annually, only 5 percent to 10 percent continue on with higher education.

It is not clear how many undocumented students are on Fairfield’s campus. Project leader of the study and director of the Center for Faith and Public Life, Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., said in an email to The Mirror: “Our study tended to be a qualitative, not a quantitative, study of the situation of undocumented students. We did not attempt to find out how many undocumented students were at each school.”

Some obstacles stated in the study were the limited opportunities available to undocumented students; the fear of deportation, making the college admissions process more difficult for them mentally; the culture shock; isolation from other students; and no financial aid, meaning that federal aid and state aid are either not easily acquired or not acquired at all.

Most importantly, undocumented students feel like they do not have public support.

However, by providing their signatures, the 25 Jesuit university presidents disagree. Also, according to the study, over 75 percent of Jesuit university staffers believe that the mission of the Jesuits also includes helping these undocumented students. More than 60 percent of the staffers believe this assistance should become an institutional priority.

At Fairfield, there is “a group of sympathetic faculty and administrators to try to help these students,” said Ryscavage.

In addition, undocumented students are encouraged to apply for University financial aid through CSS.

Strategies need to be reconsidered in order to help more undocumented students, said the report. Recommended actions include modifying college admission forms so that the social security would not be mandatory information; creating more funds specifically for undocumented students; and having alumni assist the students with their post-graduation careers.

“One of the things the report points out is that the networks for the admission and on-going support of undocumented students has been an informal one, and one of the recommendations is to try to formalize these networks,” said von Arx.

The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyer v. Doe says that undocumented students have a constitutional right to attend public elementary and secondary school for free. But the laws regarding the admission of undocumented students to universities or colleges vary.

The University’s study reported that there is no federal law that bars undocumented students from being admitted to public universities or colleges. But, “states may admit or bar undocumented students from enrolling as a matter of policy or through legislation.”

Private universities, like Fairfield, are free to admit undocumented students – regardless of state laws – and can also create scholarship programs for them.

Fr. von Arx said the University will continue aiding undocumented students with financial aid.

Ryscavage believes that Jesuit universities have a responsibility to fulfill to these undocumented students. “The Catholic notion of the Common Good means creating the social conditions that allow for the full flourishing of the human person,” he said.

“The Jesuit value focuses on being men and women for others which is what the school is doing by helping undocumented students,” Joseph said.

Hannequin agreed, saying that the issue of undocumented immigration is “a matter of human rights and is one of the big challenges we are facing as a society – and it is one we have been facing for too long.”

The results of the study primarily came from interviews with 26 undocumented students and 110 university staffers from the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S. The students interviewed had arrived in the country as young as 40 days to no older than nine years, according to study.

Fairfield University had received a $200,000 grant in 2010 from Ford Foundation to “survey and understand the legal and social contexts, attitudes and current practices in Jesuits schools of higher education in the United States regarding undocumented students,” according to the Center for Faith and Public Life’s Web page.

The research was led by the 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.

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