In today’s tumultuous political climate, there are those among us who play the part of the pawns in constantly shifting cultural wars and congressional battles. On Notre Dame’s campus, undocumented students are now caught in the middle of a national argument.
With another school year in its infancy, President Donald Trump released a statement that dampened the mood across campus and the nation. In September, he announced plans to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy implemented by former President Barack Obama in June 2012. The plan protects undocumented children and young adults arriving in the United States from deportation and offers them the right to work legally in the United States.
On campus shortly after Trump’s election, We Stand For, a student organization on campus that describes itself as an “organizing coalition,” initiated a walkout on Nov. 16, 2016. The walkout, part of a national movement, aimed to show support for undocumented students and their families and promote the adoption of sanctuary status at Notre Dame.
Becoming a sanctuary campus entails the refusal to share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to the fullest extent of the law and to grant physical access to all land owned or controlled by the university. Additionally, according to the We Stand For’s Facebook page event, in order to be considered a sanctuary campus, the university should prohibit “campus security from inquiring about or recording as to an individual’s immigration status or enforcing immigration laws or participating with ICE/CBP actions.” The university also may not use E-Verify, an employment verification system, or allow any form of housing discrimination based on immigration status.
On Feb. 16, 2017, the group posted the following update on their website: “Though he refused to declare Notre Dame a Sanctuary Campus, [University] President Jenkins has agreed to continue to protect students’ identity unless legally compelled to release it.”
Jason Ruiz, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the department of American studies, became an important part of the conversation last school year when students began advocating for sanctuary status at Notre Dame.
“My involvement in the sanctuary movement really came from having students who revealed to me their undocumented status over the years and feeling like they had as much to contribute to this university and to America as much as every other student. So my entry point is as a teacher, first and foremost, thinking that it’s heartbreaking that legal decisions that are out of the students’ control could have impacted their right to be here. And that to me is scary as a teacher.”
The pressure only continues to mount as the days tick down before the repeal takes effect. Students fear for their future, not only at Notre Dame but in the entire country.
According to CNN, roughly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants will lose their ability to work, study and avoid deportation unless counter action is taken. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, which administered the program, has said they will provide information stored in databases about the DACA participants to ICE. This includes living arrangements, education, confirmation of identity, background checks, fingerprints and other checks that look at identifying biological features. ICE, as stated on their website, “identifies and apprehends removable aliens, detains these individuals when necessary and removes illegal aliens from the United States.” Under the Obama administration, undocumented immigrants were encouraged to identify themselves. Under the Trump administration, however, they find themselves stuck on a government list with an expiration date.
DACA did not provide these people with a path towards citizenship, so in many ways, they have been left without options. It is important also to note the extent to which DACA recipients have contributed to American society. According to Newsweek, 90 percent of DACA recipients have jobs with an average hourly wage of $17.46/hour. Estimates suggest that the U.S. will lose up to $460 billion in its GDP over the next 10 years without DACA in place, and 56 percent of registered voters said that DACA recipients should be allowed to stay if they meet certain requirements, which they notably have. Only 0.2 percent of DACA recipients have had their benefits rescinded due to crime or gang-related activity. Seventy-two percent are in higher education.
“The vast majority of students present [at events, like the walk-out] are not DACA-eligible. The vast majority are U.S. nationals or international students,” Ruiz says. “But the only way that we can make lasting change on this campus is if it’s not just a tiny minority of people — those who are personally affected by DACA themselves — who come out in support of the issue and in making Notre Dame a welcoming place for childhood arrivals who are currently undocumented.”
“There was a time in which I was a little bit hopeful,” Ruiz says. “I was hopeful that all of our efforts and energies would be moot because the president-elect had in many instances expressed some compassion for DACA-eligible undocumented students. Those students were stuck because of their parents’ actions, and therefore should get an equal shake or should be treated as U.S. domestic students and eligible for financial aid. There were moments where I thought the president-elect had expressed some compassion for DACA students, but I see that going away in more recent statements [in which he is] setting an end to DACA.”
Gargi Purohit, Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy (SCIA) co-president and advocate for DACA students, spoke to Scholastic regarding what she believes is lacking in the university’s immigration policy. “I’m really dissatisfied and disappointed because there’s a lot of what I call ‘lip service’ from the university. However, they’re not really acting upon their words and promises that they would keep us safe and that they’re trying to provide the best resources.”
Purohit went on to describe some of the specific difficulties faced by undocumented students. “We’ve asked them for lawyers, because plenty of other schools — like a lot of the California schools, particularly the UC schools [have these services]. One of them has a law center on campus where undocumented students can go to and ask and get free services. However, there’s nothing like that on this campus.”
Purohit continued, “We have gotten lawyer services provided, but the catch is that we have to pay for our second meeting … We get a free consultation and then we have to pay for the follow-up meeting, which just does not make sense to me because most of the undocumented students, we are on scholarship here … there’s absolutely no way that I can afford the lawyer’s fees.” (Purohit could not provide the names of the lawyers or state whether or not they were associated with Notre Dame.)
“I think Notre Dame always waits until after something horrible has happened to really, truly act upon [issues],” said Purohit. “And I think they need to start … really providing us with security and resources before something bad happens, or before we hear any updates from the president about what’s going on with undocumented immigrants.”
Notre Dame International (NDI), whose mission is to “advance international study, exchange and scholarship by cultivating Notre Dame’s global alliances and partnerships,” details its policy on studying abroad on its website as it relates to undocumented DACA students. The statement reads: “While there is some evidence of students in DACA status who have left the U.S. on a study abroad program and successfully re-entered the U.S. after the conclusion of the program, study abroad for DACA students is discouraged by the university at this time. Should a student decide to go ahead with study abroad or an international experience, Notre Dame strongly encourages students to seek the counsel of an immigration attorney before considering this as an option.” On this topic, Purohit stated that DACA students have always been discouraged from studying abroad, “even before Trump got elected.”
On NDI’s policy, Ruiz noticeably paused before saying, “It makes perfect sense logistically, because re-entry for a DACA student would be a dicey situation and it could get them in some legal trouble in a post-DACA world. So I personally would be reluctant about advising a student I knew was DACA-eligible to study abroad. That said, I want to imagine a world where DACA students would have equal opportunities to everyone around them. Study abroad is part of the college experience. It’s something that makes it a rich, expansive, important time in your life. I hope that we can work toward making that accessible to DACA students as well.”
University president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. has, for his part, followed up on his word that he would take further action to protect DACA students since making statements regarding the issue in late August and early September. University Spokesman and Associate Vice President Dennis Brown says that, during the current semester, “Father Jenkins has met with congressional leaders and expressed his support for DACA students, and requested their support for them.”
“I’ve personally been pleased with the university’s response on the DACA issue,” Ruiz says. “I think that it wants to find a way to enable undocumented students to access, matriculate and make it through Notre Dame. They’re up against something huge, and I wouldn’t want to be the one in the Dome making those decisions. But I think that Fr. Jenkins has acted with compassion and concern for DACA students.”
Ruiz continued: “I think we have an opportunity to be national leaders on the issue of undocumented students, but I think it takes a lot of guts as well.”
This is not the first instance in which Jenkins has involved himself in national issues, even with regard to policies enacted by the Trump administration. In October, Jenkins “issued several statements and made public a letter in opposition to the contraception mandate,” Brown says. That statement, which lauded the administration’s decision to widen the religious and moral parameters for exemption under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, referenced U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions who said, “Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law.”
By taking such a public stance on controversial issues such as the health mandate, DACA and others, the university stresses that faith is the root from which stems any action taken. Here, especially, when the lives of students and their families are at risk, the university is working to protect them on the basis of one basic — but extremely impactful — tenet of the Catholic faith: that everyone look out for and protect his fellow man.
We Stand For issues the following statement on their website: “We first organized in support of sanctuary campus policies for our undocumented/ DACA students. Now, we continue our work in support of all those marginalized by university or government policies, to ensure that everyone has access to a safe and supportive educational environment.”
We Stand For’s most recent event, entitled “Flag Drop,” was organized in protest to Vice President Mike Pence’s commencement invitation. The group voiced their support for the LGBTQ community, a group at times victimized by policies supported by Pence, by displaying 500 rainbow flags across campus and staging a walkout during his speech. We Stand For has and continues to pride itself on standing up for marginalized communities. While supporting DACA students comprised the group’s initial rallying cry, We Stand For has since continued to give voice to those who have been deemed politically and systemically voiceless.
“As Catholic universities, we are uniquely positioned to use our faith in making an argument for the rights of people to get educated,” Ruiz says. “I’m skeptical about treating faith as a shield all the time and saying, ‘Oh we can get away with breaking the law because we’re Catholic.’ I don’t like that, but I do think that there’s a reason why so many people [in the Notre Dame family are interested in the issue]. It’s because the Catholic faith is an important part of being a part of this institution. And that faith tells us again and again — including the current Pontiff — to be of service, of aid to the migrant. That’s part of what being Catholic is all about. And I don’t think DACA students are any less deserving than anyone else who falls under the category of ‘immigrant’ or ‘migrant.’”
Alison O’Neil also contributed reporting.