Blogpost: Five Reasons Catholic Universities Should Reach Out to Undocumented Students

By Dan Parrish, C.S.C.

Undocumented student access to higher education is a particularly hot topic in late 2012.  It is an issue that is not necessarily bound by partisanship, with post-election calls for comprehensive immigration reform coming from both the right and left.  Each year roughly 65,000 undocumented children graduate from secondary schools in the United States (Gonzales, 2009).  These graduates, on average, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, and while they can legally attend most colleges, they are largely ineligible for financial aid.  Russell (2011) notes that between 5 and 10 percent of these students go to college, usually community colleges (p. 2).  How to serve these students is a question that has been before educators and policy makers for over a decade.  In 2001, the bipartisan Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was introduced in Congress, though it has failed to pass numerous times (Gonzales, 2009, p. 4).

Since 2007 the National Forum has been working to focus attention on undocumented student access through a variety of action research projects (read more here:  We can examine this issue from a variety of perspectives: what does social justice demand of us?; what does our legal system allow (and what should it allow?); how should financial aid be structured?; and so on.  Another important way we can look at this issue from a public/private perspective.  Specifically, can or should private institutions have a unique stance on the issue?  Even more to the point, how should our Catholic colleges and universities understand undocumented student access?  (If it seems strange for someone at a public institution like the University of Michigan to be ‘preaching’ about the role of Catholic higher education, well, that’s what happens when a Catholic priest gains admission into the CSHPE . . .)

One of the leading members of the hierarchy in the American Catholic church has committed himself to advocating on behalf of the undocumented.  Cardinal Roger Mahony (2012) is the retired archbishop of Los Angeles and has set a goal of visiting all 250+ Catholic colleges and universities in the coming years to engage students, faculty, and staff on the issue of undocumented student access.  The National Forum is proud to be partnering with Cardinal Mahony on several initiatives regarding this important issue, including an upcoming session at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities on February 4, 2013.  Cardinal Mahony is not shy in stating his position:

The Catholic community in the United States—particularly Catholic colleges and universities—should have a special interest in the situation of DREAM beneficiaries. Not only are the majority of the Catholic faith, these young students would add to the diversity and strength of Catholic higher education in our country (p. 459).

Though Cardinal Mahony is among the most outspoken of the Catholic bishops, his comments are not without context in the broader discussion of immigration.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB; 2003) states, “we stand in solidarity with you, our migrant brothers and sisters, and we will continue to advocate on your behalf for just and fair migration policies” (para. 106).  The USCCB does not have an official policy on undocumented student access, though it offers important context in statements like this.

What does all of this mean for Catholic higher education?  I think we can argue that it means five things:

1) The Catholic church has a fundamental commitment (also known as a ‘preferential option’) to care for the poor and disadvantaged in society.  Jesus demanded it and the church has always understood this as a primary responsibility for all believers, including those who serve in higher education.  Again, this foundational stance should inform our thinking on all social issues, including access for undocumented students.

2) The history of the Catholic church in the United States is largely a story of immigration, and it includes a lot of suffering at the hands of the more powerful.  Does anyone doubt that one of the reasons the University of Notre Dame became so widely recognized is because it represented success for Catholics in the broader culture, specifically Irish and immigrant Catholics?  Notre Dame, like many other Catholic institutions, made its name by providing a means of social uplift through education of immigrants.  (Disclaimer: I am a Holy Cross priest and was ordained at Notre Dame.)

3) In early 2012 I asked Fr. Ted Hesburgh, C.S.C., president emeritus of Notre Dame, what he thought we should do for undocumented students.  “It’s pretty simple,” he said, “if there are students, then we should educate them!”  That might seem to be an overly simplistic take on a complex issue, but there may be something to Fr. Ted’s forthrightness.  Catholic colleges and universities span the globe looking for students to enroll in their institutions.  It makes no difference if students hail from China or from Honduras—if they can do the work, we usually admit them.  So why should it matter what a student’s immigration status is in the United States?  Would we be more interested in educating them if they had papers from Mexico or Canada?  Or is this one of those places that our status as independent institutions protects us from some of the legal tangles that public universities face?

4) College admissions officers earn their keep by admitting the “right kind” of students for their institutions.  While we have traditionally relied on GPAs and standardized test scores to identify acceptable students, institutions are increasingly turning towards noncognitive variables.  Sedlacek (2004) explains that the term noncognitive refers “to variables relating to adjustment, motivation, and perceptions, rather than the traditional verbal and quantitative (often called cognitive) areas typically measured by standardized tests” (p. 36).  DePaul University, for instance, decided in 2011 to offer a “test-optional alternative” for applicants that allows students to respond to short essay questions to demonstrate their potential.  Many undocumented students have overcome tremendous barriers (language, poverty, discrimination, etc.) and have the mettle—the ‘noncognitive’ strengths—to develop into tremendous leaders . . . if someone but gives them a chance.

5) Finally, there is the simple fact that so many of the undocumented are themselves Catholic.  While Catholic institutions do not exist solely to serve members of the Catholic church, loyalty to one’s own family would seem to dictate that we at least consider reaching out to them.

I am not yet willing to be as courageous as Cardinal Mahony on this issue, and I am hesitant to argue that Catholic universities should universally accept undocumented students—at least not yet.  There may come a time in the near future, under the guidance of our bishops, when we decide as a church that we are going to take a stand on the issue.  Until then, however, I think it is fair to argue that if we are take our history and our faith seriously then we in Catholic higher education will find ourselves reaching out in a special way to our migrant brothers and sisters.  And along the way we just might find ourselves blazing a path for our public counterparts to do the same.



Gonzales, R. G. (2009). Young lives on hold: The college dreams of undocumented students. New York, NY: College Board.

Mahony, R. M. (2012). The DREAM Act: We all benefit. Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, 26(2), 459-472.

Russell, A. (2011). State policies regarding undocumented college students: A narrative of unresolved issues, ongoing debate and missed opportunities. Washington, DC: American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Sedlacek, W. E. (2004). Beyond the big test: Noncognitive assessment in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Conferencia del Episcopado Mexicano. (2003). Strangers no longer: Together on the journey of hope, from




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