by Jessica Reaves
It is fitting that the university named for St. Vincent de Paul, who centuries ago worked tirelessly to assist war refugees in Paris, has staked out the vanguard of a very similar struggle. Amidst an increasingly caustic political and public debate over immigration reform, DePaul has taken a leadership role defending the rights of immigrants and refugees.
A dedicated advocate of immigration reform–especially as it pertains to students–DePaul University President the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., is a particular proponent of the DREAM Act. The federal bill, initially introduced in 2001 by Sen. Orrin Hatch and more recently championed by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, would allow children of undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship through college or military service. Congress has considered various iterations of the act every year for the last 10 years. And every year, it has been defeated, sometimes by just one or two votes.
Supporters of the legislation cite a 2010 Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation report that estimated the DREAM Act would reduce deficits by nearly $1.5 billion from 2011 to 2020 and raise $2.3 billion in revenues over 10 years. A UCLA study projects the 2.1 million beneficiaries of the DREAM Act would contribute between $1.4 trillion and $3.6 trillion to the economy over 40 years. Opponents argue the law essentially rewards and encourages illegal immigration.
DePaul and the DREAM Act
DePaul University, Fr. Holtschneider emphasizes, almost never takes a position on political issues. The DREAM Act prompted an exception. In a November 2010 speech at the Justice for Immigrants National Convening, Fr. Holtschneider announced the university’s unequivocal institutional support for the federal DREAM Act and underscored the terrible cost of inaction. “The problem, of course, is that it’s not college that’s their dream. It’s a life with a real job, perhaps in medicine, law, education, science, the arts and so much more. Those are the real dreams–and those are the dreams we are deferring or killing. It breaks our hearts.”
In August 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn announced the Illinois DREAM Act, which provides financial aid to college-bound children of undocumented residents. Unlike the broader federal mandate, the state version does not provide participants with a path to citizenship. Instead, the Illinois DREAM Act provides scholarships to worthy students using money from private donors. While Fr. Holtschneider publicly expressed support for the Illinois initiative, he has been disappointed, he said, by the lack of funding.
“I was glad to support it, and I supported it very publicly,” he said, in large part because it kept the issue of education for undocumented residents in the spotlight. “Right now, the Illinois DREAM Act depends on private donations, rather than public funds, and the coffers simply aren’t deep enough to do much good.”
Today, despite setbacks at the state and federal levels, Fr. Holtschneider continues to speak in favor of both iterations of the DREAM Act. “This is one of the issues I care most deeply about,” he said in January. “And while one could make the argument that the government’s role is to take care of the less privileged among us, the fact is that the DREAM Act is simply good public policy. It costs us very little compared to what we get back.”
“It’s been shown over and over again that investment in education more than pays for itself in the long run,” Fr. Holtschneider said. “When you pay to invest in people at that point in their lives, you pay much less over the long haul.”
The Court Battle
The broader debate over immigration reform informs a range of work on DePaul’s campus. Political science Professor Anna Law teaches courses on immigration law and policy, and her recent book, “The Immigration Battle in American Courts,” examines the role of federal courts in crafting immigration policy. In this presidential election year, Law predicts immigration reform won’t see much legislative action. “Nothing will happen before the election,” she said. “The candidates will avoid it as much as they can–immigration is the new third rail of American politics.” If the economy were in better shape, she added, the outlook might be brighter.
But while politicians can sidestep the issue, the federal courts don’t have a choice. “They’re debating the question of jurisdiction: Who decides immigration policy? Where’s the dividing line between state and federal jurisdiction?” Illinois’ wrangling with the federal government over implementation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secured Communities Program is typical of the debate we can expect in the courts, Law said.
Whatever happens in the near term, she added, “This is going to be a perennial political issue. Immigration isn’t something where you can pass one law, and say, ‘OK, it’s all fixed!’”
On the Front Lines
Perhaps no one knows this better than Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic Director Sioban Albiol and Linus Chan, attorneys and clinical instructors in DePaul’s College of Law, who, alongside clinical instructor and attorney Sarah Diaz, staff the clinic. Davina Campos, a paralegal, and administrative assistant Lorena Hernandez round out the team.
Part instructional entity, part legal aid program, the clinic handles more than 400 immigration and refugee cases annually, according to Albiol. Clinic attorneys and students partner with 23 community-based organizations (CBOs) throughout the greater Chicago area, providing desperately needed legal assistance and helping to train CBO staff members.
Despite the contentiousness of the immigration reform debate, Albiol said the clinic’s work has been “welcomed at every turn.” Within the DePaul community, she adds, “multiple departments have offered support. Perhaps more surprisingly, some government officials have expressed their gratitude.”
University Ombudsperson the Rev. Craig Mousin, an attorney, law faculty member and minister who helped found the clinic, believes its work is an elemental reflection of DePaul’s Vincentian principles–and provides an essential legal tool to immigrants caught in a vicious cycle of enforcement. “Our immigration legal system has a lot of broken parts,” Mousin said. “And even rational attempts to fix those parts are met with a counter-cry to make it less hospitable to people seeking to make a home in our nation.”
Among those who seek assistance from the clinic, the most pressing issue today is fear, according to Chan. “Not only do those fleeing persecution fear being returned to their country to face imprisonment or worse, but undocumented clients here in the U.S. are constantly in danger of deportation and discrimination.”
For DePaul students, working in the clinic can have a profound impact as they are exposed to the way immigration laws affect individual lives, said Albiol. “They see the confusion and fear immigration laws and policies engender, and they see how a client is affected by a positive outcome.”
Not even the most optimistic advocate of immigration reform believes the clinic’s work is close to complete. But many at DePaul believe it’s only a matter of time before refugees and immigrants are served by a very different–and infinitely more just - set of laws.
“Sooner or later,” said Fr. Holtschneider, “you have to put your anger aside, and say, ‘Fine. They’re here. Let’s move on from there. Let’s find the best public policy response to this reality.’ ”
Jessica Reaves is a journalist in Chicago. She has written about DePaul's International Human Rights Law Institute for the magazine.