Why Jesuit Universities Should Adopt Sanctuary Status

In light of recent executive orders by the Trump administration, it is essential universities both secular and religious open a dialogue and stand with refugee, immigrant and undocumented communities and discuss becoming a sanctuary campus. I am not a theologian nor am I a Catholic, however, I have worked, studied and taught at a Jesuit university for 10 years. I am inspired by Catholic social teaching, and as mentioned by Catholic and legal scholar Michael Scaperlanda, “Ideas expressed in Catholic social doctrine are objectively available to all of us independent of our own faith or non-faith traditions.” The purpose of this essay is to urge Jesuit universities to become sanctuary campuses and stand with our undocumented family.

Currently, many universities’ justifications for not adopting the title of a sanctuary campus due to threats of fines or sanctions of funding is understandable; however, I would like to appeal to what is just rather than what is safest. In one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speeches, titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” he evokes Matthew 25, stating:

It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, “That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.” That’s the question facing America today.

This point is further made in Leviticus:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (19:33f.)

In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King explained how, with protest, we can “create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” King pointed at one of the foundations of social justice, conjuring St. Augustine, stating that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

I fear we may be resculpting King’s statement of yelling “Wait” into oppressed ears until it ferments to never. I fear we may be contributing to the echo of his words: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

After Election Day, hate crimes saw an increase. In 2015, six predominantly Black churches were burned in Missouri with suspected racial motivation, while university chapels stands pristine. A record number of US mosques were attacked in 2015, and two mosques were burned down in Texas in January 2017, while university chapels stand untouched, a worthy canvas for sanctuary.

As displayed, Christianity is about helping the stranger; solidarity is being an ally to the oppressed. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, written in the heat of the Industrial Revolution in 1891, explained how solidarity with marginalized workers was essential. Jon Sobrino, S.J., invoked the image of the oppressed as a crucified people, and in theologian James Cone’s work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he describes the legacy of white supremacy in the US and the plight of African-Americans as being a crucified people.

Immigration is a complex issue involving political, economic, social, geographic, racial and gender dynamics. In Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, immigration scholar Mae M. Ngai explained that a racial hierarchy was constructed when immigration was reformed in the 1920s, putting Northern and Western Europeans at the top and people from Latin America at the bottom. Since 1993, thousands of migrants have died crossing the US border, ironically with many of them having to pass through a town named Altar and an area called “Crucifixion Thorn” by US Border Patrol agents because many migrants have died in that area.

The consequences of these policies have led to discrimination, racial profiling, hate crimes and death. These consequences delve into deeper intersections as displayed by African American Studies and Criminology scholar Beth Richie, who explains that immigrant women who do not have legal status often are fearful to report physical assault or sexual aggression by partners to avoid Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because these interactions could result in deportation. Ritchie also explains that women often experience violence in the hands of ICE, and they face oppressive conditions in detention centers, along with children who are detained.

By standing with the undocumented community, Jesuit universities have the opportunity to set the precedent for other religious schools and educational institutions abroad. From studying history, it is evident that movements matter; movements — not the better nature of politicians — have traditionally caused policy change in US history. It is clear we are not living in ordinary times. By kowtowing to threats, this can open the door for other oppressive policies to spread its rhizomatic roots, such as the recent executive order discriminating against Muslim communities and suspending entry into the US from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Another example is Executive Order 13768 of January 25, 2017, which intends to release a weekly list of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants residing in so-called sanctuary cities. Journalist Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, recently pointed out that Nazi Germany had a paper called Der Stürmer, which published “supposed Jewish crimes.”

I would like to conclude by posing some questions: How can universities open dialogue on the topic of becoming a sanctuary campus? Can universities invite people from the undocumented community to share their stories and comment before making decisions on sanctuary policies? Can universities invite other churches or schools who have provided sanctuary to comment?

Finally, I ask that we reflect on the four crucial questions posed by W.E.B. Du Bois in his novel The Ordeal of Mansart, “How shall Integrity face Oppression? What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception; Decency in the face of Insult; Self-defense before Blows? How shall Desert and Accomplishment meet Despising, Detraction and Lies? What shall Virtue do to meet Brute Force?”