Local Catholics react to Supreme Court DACA decision

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2020

DACA demonstrators hold signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Nov. 12, 2019. In a 5-4 decision June 18, the Supreme Court rejected President Donald Trump’s executive order to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides legal protections and work authorization to immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by their parents without legal documents. CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 18 that the Trump administration’s efforts to end DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, did not meet legal muster, Carlos Benitez breathed a sigh of relief.

Benitez, a senior at Dominican University in River Forest, is president of the school’s Undocumented and Immigrant Allyance, and works as an immigrant student support assistant in El Centro, Dominican’s multicultural center. He knows the 5-4 ruling, which said that a 2017 executive order was “arbitrary and capricious,” is not the final word, and the administration can try again to rescind DACA.

Still, he said, a win is a win.

“I was ecstatic to hear about it,” Benitez said. “It’s a step in the right direction, even though it’s temporary.”

DACA itself was always intended to be a temporary solution, instituted by executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012. It allowed young people who had been brought to the U.S. without documentation before they turned 16 and before 2007 and had lived in the United States since that time to be free from worries about deportation and to be permitted to work, go to college and get driver’s licenses. DACA status must be renewed every two years.

Applicants must pass criminal background checks, and while they can attend college, they are not eligible for any federal financial aid. In Illinois, the RISE Act, passed in 2019, allows undocumented students to qualify for state financial aid.

The Undocumented and Immigrant Allyance lobbied hard for the RISE Act, Benitez said, and members will continue to advocate for legislation that will help undocumented people, including the DREAM Act, the name used for several proposals introduced over a decade and a half that would allow “dreamers,” or people brought to the United States without documents as children, to eventually obtain citizenship.

Most recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a DREAM Act in June 2019; the Senate has not taken it up for consideration.

Benitez said he is grateful that he has DACA status, so he can speak out without fear of deportation, and grateful for the support Dominican University has shown for its undocumented students.

“Dominican is such a special place for undocumented students,” Benitez said. “It’s one of the few universities that I know that actively engages their undocumented students and actively voices their commitment and mission to make sure the university is a safe space for undocumented students.”

Donna Carroll, Dominican’s president, said she was also relieved when the ruling came down.

“It’s a vindication at one level. It restores some security and some sense of hope,” said Carroll, who has long advocated for undocumented students, including pushing the university to adopt a “sanctuary campus” statement and helping undocumented students find scholarships. “My first response was relief. If most of us were honest, we weren’t sure. We knew there was strong bipartisan support for DACA. We knew that morally it was the right thing. But in this toxic political environment, we didn’t know what would happen. It was a sigh of relief for students who can’t plan, and who are distracted from their studies and from their life.”

Dominican’s student population is majority Latino, and while students are not asked about their status, the university’s director of public information, Jessica MacKinnon, said that financial aid counselors estimate that about 10 percent are undocumented.

Elizabeth Collier, a professor of business ethics at Dominican, said she includes immigration modules in her undergraduate business ethics classes and advocates for immigration reform, adding that Catholic social teaching is predicated on the idea that social structures must serve the best interests of people.

In terms of immigration, that means that people who do not have the opportunity to flourish in their home countries have the right to migrate. Countries have the right to control their borders, but not to keep people out in order to maintain a disproportionately high standard of living. They also are obligated to provide help to refugees and asylum seekers, according to Catholic social teaching.

“We are supposed to be looking at, ‘How are we serving human beings?’ and not, ‘How much are human beings costing us?’” she said. “A person’s value is not dependent on their birthplace.”

What’s more, she said, immigrants are not a drain on the U.S. economy. They are more likely than native-born Americans to start businesses and employ people, and they buy property and pay taxes.

“They create jobs, invent things and they are researchers at our higher ed institutions,” said Collier, who serves on the advisory board of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and Immigration Education and is co-author of “Good Business: Catholic Social Teaching at Work in the Marketplace.” “If all DACA recipients were deported, the consequences to communities in every aspect — in health care, the service industry, housing and neighborhoods — it’s a huge, huge economic and community cost.”

That isn’t always clear to her students, she said, at least not at first.

“There are some students in the midst of awakening, but when they learn the reality of the data, they’ll later write that they just didn’t have any idea,” Collier said.

Many of them gain a new perspective simply by being in contact with undocumented students.

“If they spend time with someone, like they work on a project with them, and then they find out they’re undocumented, and it doesn’t fit their idea of what undocumented people are like, they suddenly understand that it really isn’t fair for this person to have opportunities closed off,” Collier said.

The June 18 ruling brought DACA back into focus and will spur efforts to advocate for a more permanent solution, Caroll said.

“I think our students will be louder,” Carroll said. “I think they will have and we will experience some renewed energy on their part to push through to something more permanent, citizenship-wise. I think they will ally and rally with this larger conversation with equity and social justice. The Black Lives Matter movement and the DACA movement will galvanize each other.”

Benitez said the Undocumented and Immigrant Allyance is already working to support Black Lives Matter, and to protest unjust immigration policies and practices.

The group had organized a videoconference celebration the afternoon after the ruling was released.

“Today we celebrate,” he said. “Tomorrow we will be organizing again.”

Benedictine Sister Benita Coffey, president of the board of directors of the Sisters and Brothers of Immigrants, a group of men and women religious in the Archdiocese of Chicago, said her group is also organizing to advocate for the passage of the Dream Act. The group, which works with the archdiocese’s Immigration Ministry, put out a statement calling the Supreme Court ruling a “tremendous victory” and urging the Senate to take action.

Members of Sisters and Brothers of Immigrants are sending that statement to anyone they can think of, and urging them to spread the word so that more people will contact their senator. It’s important even in states like Illinois, where both U.S. Senators are on record as supporting the DREAM Act, she said.

“We need to tell them that we’re behind them,” Sister Benita said. “I don’t know if they really know the power of how many people are behind them. We want this done. ‘Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me,’ and we’re all responsible for that. We’re not going to stop talking about it.”


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