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A face behind the numbers’

Christian Myers | Friday, April 26, 2013


Notre Dame was founded by immigrants and its athletic teams – the Fighting Irish – derive their nickname from an immigrant group. Still, faculty, students and University administrators agree the University could do more when it comes to the issue of immigration.

University President Fr. John Jenkins recently held a prayer service where he spoke in support of immigration reform. Jenkins and called on the University to contribute to the national discussion and seek “just and effective immigration reform.”

Some students and faculty, however, Jenkins’ call to “provide welcome to the stranger among us” answered it before it was spoken.


Service learning 

Rachel Parroquin, assistant professional specialist with the Center for Social Concerns (CSC) and Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, attended Jenkins’ prayer service with her students.

Parroquin said she agrees that the University community needs to renew its efforts in addressing immigration issues.

“I think it’s really something that’s needed. I’m glad people are getting informed and getting involved,” Parroquin said.

The students who came with Parroquin were from her “Community-Based Spanish: Language, Culture and Community” course. She said the course helps students understand the issues facing immigrants in the South Bend community.

Parroquin said her course invariably increases the awareness and understanding of students when it comes to immigration issues.

“It always comes out in the students’ writing, whether reflections or final papers, that by working with the community they learn that the statistics they’re working with have faces,” she said. “They learn immigration issues are not just theoretical and these people live them every day.”

Marisel Moreno, Institute for Latino Studies fellow, Kellogg Institute for International Studies fellow and assistant professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, also promotes immigration awareness through her courses.

Moreno said she has taught a U.S. Latino literature course with service learning in the South Bend community each semester for the past three years. Moreno said students in the course, which is restricted to juniors and seniors, are required to tutor grade school, middle school and high school students at La Casa for at least two hours each week.

Moreno said this community based learning helps students humanize the things they learn in the classroom.

“The idea behind this kind of pedagogy is the student is not only exposed to the academic questions in the classroom, but is stepping beyond the classroom and gaining real experience,” Moreno said. “It’s really powerful, because they can put a face behind the numbers.”

Senior Mary Pullano, a student in Moreno’s class, said interacting with immigrants at La Casa increased her understanding of complex immigration issues and the human side of those issues.

“What has made me most sensitive to immigrants is working with the immigrant families at La Casa, witnessing both their great need and great generosity,” Pullano said. “I have always understood that immigration is not a black-and-white issue, but the community based learning has helped me to see the deep complexity of the issue.”

Moreno said another part of her course is an immersion weekend in which students stay in the homes of families that are served by La Casa.

“While they’re there [students] are able to discuss some immigration issues like legal status and language barriers with their host families,” she said. “Many of [the families] are undocumented – and I’m always careful to use undocumented not illegal. After the immersion weekend and working at La Casa, students begin to understand how complicated this issue is.”

Senior Jim Ropa, also a student in Moreno’s class, said the immersion weekend exposed him to problems with the current U.S. immigration policies.

“I lived with a Mexican-American family for a weekend and realized that only a flawed system could allow a woman who has been living here for 21 years, applying for citizenship throughout, [to] be the only person in her family of 17 people to still be considered illegal,” Ropa said.

Moreno said that overall her students enjoy the class and the opportunity it affords to interact with the local Latino community, which is why she continues to teach the course.

“It’s a really amazing opportunity and students really appreciate it. Seniors tell me they wish they had heard about La Casa sooner,” she said. “As long as I can, I’m going to keep doing Latino literature classes with service learning.”

Mike Hebbeler, director of student leadership and senior transitions at the CSC, said he created the CSC seminar course “Advocacy for the Common Good” in partnership with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to help students learn advocacy skills.


CSC immersion courses

Hebbeler said students who took CSC immersion courses related to immigration, like the “Border Issues” and “Migrant Workers” seminars, came back with the passion to advocate for immigration reform, but lacked the necessary skills and knowledge.

“Students come back from these immersion courses and have a strong passion for the issue and want to effect change, but they don’t necessarily possess the skills to implement change,” Hebbeler said. “So the course aims to equip them with the skills to act on their passion in an effective way.”

Junior Rachel Beck said she took the advocacy course after taking the CSC’s Border Issues seminar.

Beck said the students in the course worked to petition Indiana’s U.S. Senators on the subject of immigration reform.

“Our main goal was to do a letter petition and send it to the Indiana Senators,” Beck said. “We advocated around the issues of reunification of families and better legal migration from the perspective of catholic social teaching. We focused especially on family reunification because family is something people really care about in the Notre Dame community.”

Hebbeler said the CSC provides training for students in the course because immigration is an important issue for the church. The CSC promotes advocacy in accordance with Catholic social teaching, he said.”The global church is taking this issue seriously and advocating on behalf of immigrants. You could say we are an immigrant church, at least in America we are,” he said. “This, of course, is all rooted in the gospel.”

Students have also taken it upon themselves to advocate and educate on the topic of immigration. Beck said after taking the advocacy course, she and her classmates have joined the Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy (SCIA) and Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) in promoting immigration awareness. 

She said the most recent collaborative project was a video entitled “Faces of Immigration,” which can be found on YouTube.


Student and advocate

Sophomore Juan Rangel, chief of staff to student body president Alex Coccia, said he has worked with the SCIA since it formed in 2011.

Rangel said he volunteered for the group after attending a lecture given by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who started the group during a visit to Notre Dame in 2011.

“I started getting involved in 2011 as a freshman,” Rangel said. “Cardinal Mahony from L.A. came to campus and spoke about immigration. He asked if students were interested in working on immigration reform. He said he wanted to create a group for such students on all Catholic campuses in the U.S.”

Rangel said he answered Mahony’s invitation because he comes from a place where immigration is a major community issue.

“For me it’s kind of my background in general,” he said. “Living in Southern California, it’s part of everyday life. Living in an agricultural region, many of my friends were undocumented or had relatives and friends who were undocumented.”

Rangel said the Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy (SCIA), which Mahony formed, brings together Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross students. Rangel said there are approximately 40 Notre Dame students currently in the SCIA.

Rangel said SCIA has taken a “two-pronged approach” in their efforts to both promote awareness of immigration issues and advocate immigration policy reform. SCIA has partnered with clubs like the PSA and the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) to put on small scale events, he said.

Rangel said much of what the group does next year will be determined by national politics and immigration reform measures now before congress.

“It all comes down to the current immigration proposal in congress,” he said. “If anything comes out of that, it will become our focus. If nothing comes out of it, that will motivate us to do more here on campus.”

Rangel said he is encouraged by Jenkins calling the whole university’s attention to the issue.

“Continuing the discussion at an administrative level is a great start,” he said. “Any possible solutions to immigration problems are going to come at the administrative level. I think the administrators and staff doing their part, combined with our student efforts, will lead to a good impact on awareness and on advocacy efforts here on campus.”


‘Challenges of our time’

Fr. Dan Groody, director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture within the Institute for Latino Studies, has worked as part of University’s task force on immigration commissioned by Jenkins.

Groody said his work on immigration issues began when he worked as a priest in Latin America.

“My work and writing has involved looking at the church’s response to immigration, the spirituality of migrants and the theology of migration,” Groody said. “It starts in my experience during the years I lived and worked as a priest in Latin America.”

Groody said because of the University’s Catholic tradition, he considers the University’s role in the national discussion on immigration to be providing an alternative basis to consumer culture and economics.

“I think there’s a more general conversation going on around college campuses. I think Notre Dame can take a leading role and show how Catholic universities can approach the issue,” he said. “Other schools are looking at the economics, but the church has more to offer. We can focus on keeping families together, making sure agricultural laborers aren’t exploited, ensuring the dignity of all humans and recognizing the contributions that all groups can make to these goals.”

Groody said the University is obligated to confront the issues entangled with immigration.

“Immigration is part of our university heritage, part of our catholic faith, part of our service tradition and it’s also part of our present reality,” he said. “A university should be engaged in the challenges of our time.”