BY KELLY SWAN | March 17, 2022
[Editor’s Note: Student names were not used in this story to protect the privacy of Summit attendees with vulnerable immigration statuses.]
“Being undocumented can feel very isolating. It is liberating to know you aren’t alone and others in your situation are willing to help alleviate some of the burden.”
“We. Are. Not. Alone.”
“The Undocumented Jesuit Network gathering is an opportunity to break free from the numbness that comes with all of the traumatic experiences of being undocumented. The gathering is a reminder that we are not defined by our immigration status.”
These are the voices of three of the 18 college students who gathered at the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos in California from February 18-20, 2022 for ISN’s first Undocu Network (UN) Summit.
Each of the attendees gathered have an immigration story—identifying as undocumented, a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) or TPS (Temporary Protected Status) recipient, or members of mixed-status families. The gathering was designed to provide students—all students at Jesuit or other Catholic institutions—with a safe space to build community, share concerns, seek advice, and grow in organizing skills.
The gathering sprung from the Undocu Jesuit Network, an initiative launched in the summer of 2020 by the Ignatian Solidarity Network, providing a biweekly virtual community gathering space for students and young adults who are undocumented or with other immigration statuses.
Community from Commonality
A primary aim of the summit was community building—providing a space for students to connect with peers with shared experiences. The weekend began with what was intended to be a simple icebreaker—mapping countries and communities origin of those present. The exercise quickly evolved into a much deeper conversation centered around sharing stories—how parents met, how families started, what caused each family to come to the U.S., border crossing stories, how each attendee found themselves in school in their current city—finding deep commonalities in each story shared.
“[The] UN gathering…made me feel as though I had a space to feel heard and welcomed with open arms. The people around me had gone through similar experiences that I had gone through and have fought through similar battles,” shared an attendee who is a student at the University of Detroit Mercy.
Trust amongst attendees was built very quickly. Students were able to ask and answer significant and vulnerable questions, share truths about what they experience on their campuses, their personal and family struggles, and more—all within a confidential space.
Students were offered a space during which all leaders and attendees without immigration stories were asked to leave the room. The floor was opened for each person to share their experiences and feelings around challenges they face. José Arnulfo Cabrera, ISN’s director of education and advocacy for migration, shared that this was exceptionally powerful and impressive. “It was so important for students to be able to share the things they’re carrying with each other,” he explained, “and wildly impressive to see the care they’re able to provide for themselves in the midst of all of this.”
Storytelling as Power
Cabrera also led a storytelling workshop for attendees. He was clear that the aim of telling one’s immigration story is not to solicit pity, rather to learn to tell your story to enact change. “Storytelling is about reminding yourself of the power your story has, and about reminding yourself that sharing your story can help to heal some of your wounds,” he shared. “It is not about telling others all of your problems, but about sharing it in a way that gets others excited and motivated.” The summit provided a space for students to practice this skill with others who already understand the basis of complexity of immigration stories.
At the culmination of the summit, one student shared this reflection on the emphasis on storytelling throughout the weekend: “We are here. Our stories that brought us to this country, though stories of hardship are also stories of strength. We often feel helpless seeing the current political ideologies, and feel pressured by the fear to keep it all to ourselves, but the UN gathering is that safe space where we realize the universality of our migrant story and can have our human dignity restored.”
Students at Organizers
Sessions on campus organizing and action were student-led, a witness to how much experience and knowledge is present within the network of immigrant college students at Jesuit and other Catholic schools. Students were empowered to build a network of mutual learning in order to push forward the work of building more welcoming and supportive campus communities.
“I was able to learn directly from students who are involved in advocacy work,” shared one attendee. “Being able to learn and work alongside them is a great opportunity. This retreat helped shape me into a better advocate and organizer on campus.”
Presenters were able to field questions from lived experience—about how to work with university administrators to create affinity spaces on campus, pushing for more career development support for undocumented students, and more. These conversations were particularly helpful for students who are DACA recipients, thinking about non-traditional or consulting-based careers routes in light of the precarious nature of the DACA program and accompanying work authorization.
“The Ignatian undocumented community is a strong, beautiful, powerful one,” shared one attendee after the summit.
A Santa Clara University student who attended the summit agreed. “The UN gathering is an amazing opportunity to find solidarity with other undocumented students. It granted me the opportunity to explore my identity, refine what advocacy means, and strengthen my voice.”
The Undocu Network Summit was fully funded for all participants through a generous grant from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
Kelly Swan has worked for the Ignatian Solidarity Network since 2016, first as communications director, and now as director of advancement. She grew up in West Virginia and is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University. Kelly has worked in parish social ministry, child and family advocacy, community education and organizing, and publishing. She lives in the Cleveland, Ohio area with her children.