BY ISN STAFF | April 14, 2016
“Please take this opportunity to learn more about the reality of the immigrant,” was the invitation that John Carroll University (JCU) students offered as they erected a mock “border wall” in two locations on their campus earlier this week. The wall was created by JCU’s Students for Social Justice (SSJ) with support from the campus Latin American Student Association (LASA). Student organizers shared via social media that the wall was established to, “shed light on the experiences of immigrants in the U.S. and the negative impact prejudiced and intolerant rhetoric has on our nation.”
The mock-border walls offered passers-by insights into many challenges faced by those who choose to migrate to the United States, including an overview of current U.S. immigration policy, the pathways that migrants take from Central America in hopes of entering the U.S. under refugee or asylum status, and also relayed the stories of individual people that JCU students came to know during immigration-related experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border at places like the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit-sponsored bi-national ministry based in Nogales, Arizona.
Little did student organizers, who intended for the wall to create dialogue, know that it would become so controversial. The same evening that it was constructed, fellow John Carroll students offered their perspective on the immigration issue with anti-immigrant statements and messages of support for the candidacy of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, drawn in chalk around campus and by placing anti-immigrant messages on the wall. (See: Cleveland Plain Dealer & WOIO Channel 19)
That night the wall became a place of intense discussion, inspiring members of SSJ and LASA to sleep outside to ensure it remained until morning in solidarity with migrants and JCU students of immigrant backgrounds. The following day, campus members, including faculty, staff, and students gathered for a prayer service at the border walls in front of the student center.
Director of Campus Ministry John Scarano prays “Envia Tu Spiritu” for migrants & students of immigrant backgrounds pic.twitter.com/NtOUD04w1Z
— The Carroll News (@TheCarrollNews) April 13, 2016
That evening the LASA and SSJ organizers held a less contested “Somos Unidos” gathering to share stories, music, poetry and fellowship, and to promote a “culture of inclusion.”
— The Carroll News (@TheCarrollNews) April 14, 2016
In a statement posted on social media, Grace Donnelly (JCU ’16), a member of Students for Social Justice, offered a response to the anti-immigrant messages, “I call on the JCU community to be voices for justice as our campus navigates how to respond to the hate we have seen in the last few days. I encourage you all to be part of the movement to make our campus more inclusive and just. Learn more about the issues we are advocating for so you can respond to ignorance with knowledge and understanding.”
Sadly, this was not the first border wall at a Jesuit university to be defaced this month. Students at Loyola Marymount University had a similar experience last week when campus protesters spray-painted the name of Mr. Trump and slogans associated with his campaign platform over mock border wall messages, including covering quotations from sacred scripture with the word “Trump.” (See: Los Angeles Times)
At Saint Joseph’s University (SJU), similar events took place in mid-February when students and staff affiliated with SJU’s campus ministry department established a wall to coincide with the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Pope2Border campaign and Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S.-Mexico border on February 17, 2016. Students seeking to critique the pro-immigrant message erected their own border wall with anti-immigrant messages encouraging more restrictive immigration policies. In an op-ed responding to the counter wall, Beth Ford, assistant director of campus ministry at SJU expressed concern for the “expressions of fear, racism, or xenophobia” that were presented. Ford invited campus community members to work together against these sentiments on Saint Joseph’s campus and to “join together as an institution of Jesuit higher education in learning, dialogue, encounter, solidarity, and prayer.”
During his homily on the U.S.-Mexico border in February, Pope Francis spoke of a “voice crying out in the wilderness,” during Jesus’s time, but also today in the voice of the migrant and immigrant. “We still have time to transform what is destroying us as a people, what is demeaning our humanity,” he said. “Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears,” he said as an invitation to Catholics and others to seek new ways of seeing immigrant brothers and sisters.
Francis’s visit builds on the efforts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their Justice for Immigrants campaign, which has taken strong stances in calling for humane comprehensive immigration reform as well as executive actions by the Obama administration to offer undocumented people relief until such reforms are passed in Congress. In 2013, Jesuit leaders and institutions joined in this support when the Jesuit provincials published a letter undersigned by over one hundred Jesuit institutions, calling for humane immigration reform. Leaders in Jesuit higher education have also taken strong stances on immigration, particularly in expressing support for undocumented students attending Jesuit colleges and universities. Loyola University Chicago’s medical school became the first U.S. medical program to publicly accept undocumented medical students, Fairfield University partnered with other Jesuit institutions to publish research on the experience of students in Jesuit higher education, and Saint Peter’s University established a campus center to support the needs of undocumented students on their Jersey City campus.
Over the past five years, advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform has held a prominent place in the work of the Ignatian Solidarity Network. Thousands of attendees to the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice and participants in Ignatian Family Advocacy Month have made visits to congressional offices to advocate for immigration reform and against anti-immigrant legislation. Next week will mark another important date for undocumented persons in the United States seeking relief from Obama administration executive actions. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments regarding a lawsuit filed by over 20 state governors claiming that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) programs exceed the powers of the executive branch. Over 600,000 young people have received deferred action regarding their immigration status, allowing them attend college or serve in the U.S. military, and then contribute to a U.S. community and economy.
How will Election 2016 continue to influence the public debate on immigration reform, particularly on Jesuit campuses? Only time will tell. But it is clear that for many students, taking Pope Francis’s approach of bringing the human face to the forefront of the debate is imperative.