Is it bad to be an immigrant?


written by: Susan Weishar, Ph.D., Migration Fellow at the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) at Loyola University New Orleans

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in JSRI’s monthly newsletter entitled “Just South”

As migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea continue to mount and U.S. politicians persist in hardline rhetoric opposing immigration reform, Pope Francis’s 2014 Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees takes on greater urgency: “A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization—all typical of a throwaway culture—towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.” [1]

How can a “culture of encounter” with undocumented immigrants be realized in our community, especially considering barriers of language, class, location, and privilege? Perhaps by creating a welcoming space of equals, where respect and dialog are nurtured and facilitated and the deepest values of our faith traditions are recognized and affirmed. These were the goals of the Catholic Teach-In on Migration for Young Catholics, held this past semester in the Audubon Room at Loyola.

[SOURCE: Kyle Encar, Loyola University New Orleans]

[SOURCE: Kyle Encar, Loyola University New Orleans]

Participants included fifteen immigrant teens and their parents—all members of the Congress of Day Laborers, sixty juniors and seniors from Jesuit High School in New Orleans, St. Mary’s Dominican High School, Cabrini High School, and Brother Martin High School, and twenty chaperones. Eleven Loyola University New Orleans students from Honors, the Spanish Department, and Loyola University’s Community Action Program’s Immigration Advocates team served as small group discussion leaders. Simultaneous and consecutive interpretation were provided by sixteen students with Loyola University’s Interpreting and Translation program.

The Teach-In began and ended in prayers for love and hospitality for those who migrate. Participants were asked to follow “ground rules”, i.e. treat each other with respect and aim to understand one another’s points of view. After brief overviews from JSRI staff on the Church’s teachings on migration and the U.S. role in undermining healthy economies and democracy in Central America, local Catholic high school students listened intently as young immigrants bravely told their migration stories in small group discussions, including why they and their families fled Central America, what their migration journeys were like, and the challenges they face in our community living undocumented. The small group discussions were led by Loyola students, who were trained by JSRI for this task.

As participants huddled closely together in their groups to hear the teens and their parents speak, there was a sense that something sacred was taking place: vulnerability giving way to trust; mutuality and presence; giving and receiving. [2] I observed a Loyola University student hugging an immigrant mother while she tearfully told of the pain of being separated from her children. When an immigrant boy broke down when trying to speak of his mixed emotions about leaving his uncle’s family in Honduras, a student from Brother Martin, in a spontaneous act of compassion and solidarity, rushed to the front of the room to embrace him. After the event students from Jesuit and Brother Martin eagerly exchanged phone numbers with an immigrant teen who had shared with them the loneliness he has felt since leaving Honduras.

The most frequent comment from U.S. teens in event evaluations was that the Teach-In opened their eyes. An immigrant teen wrote, “[I learned] that it is not bad to be an immigrant.” What more can Jesuit institutions do to create a culture of encounter with vulnerable people marginalized by fear and indifference?

[1] Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20130805_world-migrants-day.html

[2] See Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering (New York, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 157.

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