A Lenten commitment to immigration reform

by April Gutierrez

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Lent reminds Catholics to focus on three areas: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. This year, many are choosing to make their Lenten commitments shine a light on social injustices within our country and beyond, fasting with organizations advocating for change.

As Lent began March 5, more than two dozen presidents of Catholic colleges and universities fasted for 24 hours to bring attention to the ongoing campaign Fast for Families. On Feb. 22, more than 150 students from various Midwestern Catholic colleges and universities gathered at Loyola University Chicago for "Lighting the Pathway: Student Summit on Immigration Reform." I sat with three Loyola University Chicago sophomores to discuss their commitment to immigration reform and their experience at the summit.


Why does immigration reform matter to you?

Claire O'Halloran: I was one of the students who went in November to the Ignatian Solidarity Network teach-in to advocate for increasing the minimum wage. There were students who were also there to advocate on immigration reform, and I learned how much these issues factor into each other.

Flavio Bravo: This is definitely a personal issue and a passion of mine. Coming from Arizona, I thought it was the norm to talk regularly about immigration reform. I thought in Chicago, everyone would want to talk about this issue, but many have never seen the border. They don't know about it.

Growing up, we would go on shrimp runs [to Mexico], and at the border, they would say, "Welcome, Flavio" and say the same to my brother, but my sister, the only one who has dark skin, would be asked questions.

It all goes back to my uncle, who was Cesar Chavez's right-hand man; my uncle's coffin was built by Chavez's brother. Labor rights have a direct tie to immigration reform.

Hannah Coley: I thought about immigration reform seeing people my age struggling when I don't have to worry about going to college. I had never thought about that before and this changed to being an issue present for people I know. It was a huge shock.

How has the need for immigration reform impacted you personally?

O'Halloran: It's funny, my mom asked that. My grandparents are Irish immigrants who still suffered because they were immigrants, and I have dual citizenship, but things are so different for me. Also, I am going into the health care profession, and the lack of care and disparity in the quality of care really matters to me.

Bravo: During my junior and senior year, I started getting involved in Aguila Youth Leadership Institute program and then became the student president. [Members of the program] wanted to go to college more than anyone. They would have to leave Arizona and save money for a private institution. Even those who went to Brophy, these are my friends and they don't feel safe going through the college process.

Coley: It hasn't directly impacted me, but through becoming aware through things like the summit, I get to experience firsthand accounts living with these issues. I have befriended many at LUC who are struggling with this issue.

Do you feel prepared to respond in a way that can effect change?

O'Halloran: I think so. Part of my preparedness is from November and having the experience of interacting with people in government as well as grassroots efforts by starting to speak with people. There is always more that I can learn, but realizing that they are representatives, meaning we are supposed to talk to them and allow them to represent me -- they are my voice. At first [advocating in Washington, D.C.], I thought I was playing dress up, and when I tell people that I did that, they can't believe I did it. But if I can humanize them, I can feel like I can approach them with an issue.

Coley: I know I do personally because of where I am educated and my faith and spirituality that support why I want to work for justice and social change. The faith support makes me feel so strongly that I am capable to make a change and why so many students here feel like they can make a change.

I've had professors here, as well as Jesuit scholastics, who have firsthand experience with different events and actions they have been personally involved with social justice advocacy. Through campus ministry and service immersion experiences, everything ties back to dignity and worthiness of these rights that everyone has. Ethics courses also have had an impact on what to do when your voice is limited when it is not your choice, especially the DREAMers who are trying to make a better life for themselves or have a job or life experiences limited by financial struggles. That's a huge issue I have discussed with my peers here at LUC.

How has this summit prepared you to respond? What stood out for you?

Bravo: There are so many Catholic schools talking about immigration, so we wanted to get Midwestern Catholic schools together. If they are all talking and having great ideas, why not collaborate? The first part of the summit included hearing firsthand accounts from DREAMers --one from Dominican University and one from DePaul University. We heard about support from parents and the pressure to find the right scholarships as the clock was ticking as early as October to get scholarship applications in.

The first step in responding is education. ... So creating a plan that includes education on immigration, how to advocate and lobby, and debunking myths will help.

Coley: We had a quote from Pope Francis: "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."

This concept of a throwaway culture stood out for me. We are given resources and knowledge, but we are throwing it away. Whether it's the teach-ins or discussions on campus on political and social issues or discussing the pope, it's not always about stats and numbers. It's about a change of heart that can sometimes make the most change.


A national Catholic social justice lobby group called NETWORK invites us to consider making immigration reform our Lenten promise in collaboration with the Justice for Immigrants campaign of the USCCB, providing a toolkit and a 40-day calendar for advocacy and prayer. Catholics are joined by many Christian denominations in offering this opportunity through Christian Churches Together. May this Lenten season move us to a deeper relationship with God and our neighbor.

[April Gutierrez is a graduate of Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry and is a campus minister for First-Year Experience at Loyola University Chicago. She is a contributor for NCR's most recent e-book: Pope Francis at 100 Days: The World's Parish Priest.]

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