Remarks from the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., at Justice for Immigrants National Convening

November 4, 2010

Thank you. I’m here tonight as a representative of the many faculty and staff at DePaul University who know and work with our students every day, and who are frustrated in their inability to better serve the undocumented. I’m told there are an estimated 65,000 undocumented students that graduate from U.S. high schools each year, the bulk of whom have lived in the United States most of their lives.

Federal scholarship funds are denied to them. Federally-backed loans are denied to them. The majority of private scholarships are denied to them as well. As a result, the possibility of their attending college is severely limited. These stories break our hearts at DePaul, because we’ve come to know these students personally.

We have a student currently enrolled at DePaul who has spent nearly a lifetime in the U.S. In high school this young person was named salutatorian – literally the brightest of the graduating class. While earning a very high grade point average both here and in high school, this impressive student has also served as a leader in multiple student organizations. This individual gives hours of volunteer service to the poor every week, at the same time trying to be creative and resourceful about paying for college tuition. Working when possible, but those opportunities are limited. Both this student and DePaul are at an impasse. We’ve tried to provide as much charity and private aid as we could, but it appears this young person may need to drop out of college in a few weeks.

That’s how it works, I’m afraid. DePaul admits students regardless of citizenship status. Oftentimes we don’t find out about their needs until part-way through their studies when their initial financial aid and savings run out, or their undocumented parents lose a job, or they find themselves unable to get a real job, unable to borrow, and unable, of course to secure government aid.

We have some funds at DePaul to help many students but not enough to help them all, and so we find ourselves every year advising students to leave DePaul for a two-year college or to give up their dream of attending college altogether.

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 the United States, if you come from a needy family, you can generally get a combined $10,000 in financial aid from the federal government and State of Illinois, and you can also get a loan guaranteed by the federal government for another $7500. So, that $17,500 every year that our country decides to invest in the young people from poor families. Why? Because our government has believed that “student financial aid” is a cheap and short-term investment that raises people to become contributing and tax-paying citizens. The State of Illinois and the United States government believe that it’s cheaper to invest in these young people now, instead of investing in them later in welfare, healthcare or realizing no taxes from them because they can only hold menial jobs.

They also believe that the society itself becomes stronger when citizens are prepared to work, especially in what is increasingly becoming a knowledge economy. The more a population is educated, the more the per-capita income, the larger the GDP, the less spent on subsidized healthcare, the less spent on law enforcement and prisons, the longer the life-expectancy. Society is stronger. Local communities are stronger. Families are stronger.

$10,000 and a $7500 loan for a student from a poor family is enlightened social policy. Even more bluntly, it’s enlightened self-interest for a country to invest in its young people this way, an investment that pays for itself many times over as these students enter the workforce and become taxpayers.

The Dream Act is a similar investment, I believe. The Dream Act does not provide financial scholarships to students, but the latest version of this bill did provide for government backed loans and for work study. Loans cost the government very little, since they eventually get the money back with interest. Giving students permission to hold campus jobs literally helps students pay their own way through college. To my mind, the Dream Act is a no-brainer when it comes to smart public policy.

But we all know that politics can cloud smart social choices. And that politics can itself instill fear that keeps students from achieving their dreams. Fear is real around these issues. The rhetoric around immigration reform convinces many students not to even apply for college, or to fear deportation of themselves or their parents, needlessly. Sometimes that fear is real. At DePaul, we had an employee who did not know better actually call the INS and turn a students and his family in, thinking she was doing her legal duty. That’s not true, of course. The Department of Homeland Security has made perfectly clear that universities have no obligation to report undocumented students, and we’ve done our best since to educate our employees about that, but it’s all the rhetoric that’s in the media that demonizes the undocumented and causes so much fear.

Shakespeare once co-wrote, with several other playwrights, a play called “Sir Thomas More.” He contributed only three pages to the play, but the particular three pages early in the play’s story are arguably the play’s most frightening and compelling moment.

As the play opens, immigrants have flooded London. They are poor, dirty, and different. In the opening scene, wealthy men harass an immigrant, married couple. The poor man has his food taken from him, and his wife is sexually harassed. That simple incident incites the long-suffering immigrants to form a mob, intending to burn the town of London to the ground. A mob of wealthy citizens, now fearful, gather to lynch all strangers and immigrants in London. The mobs have gathered, prepared their weapons, stirred up their righteous indignation and hatred, and are prepared to fight, when Master Thomas More, a wealthy Londoner himself and Sheriff, risks his own safety to stop the insanity. He turns to the wealthy:

What is it you seek?

The removing of the strangers.​

Say now the king should banish you,
Wh[ere] would you go?
What country should give you harbor? 
Go you to France…,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England –
Why, YOU [will] be strangers.  Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you a bode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs?
What would YOU think to be thus used?
This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
Yield yourselves.

One by one, the wealthy men lay down their weapons, and walk away.

The fear of the stranger is carried in our bones as human beings.  The powerful in society have always feared those who are new, and who might one day become powerful themselves.  Hitler fanned the fear that the Jews were plotting the dilution and overthrow of German society.  The United States justified the enslavement of African people by claiming that they were not human; that they were less-than-human; that they might rise up against their owners; that the bible justified slavery.  Women in this country were said to be too simple-minded and emotionally unstable to be allowed to vote; that democracy would fail if women were given power over it; that the bible taught the subserviency of women.  Fred Phelps and his church members stand outside military funerals screaming, “God hates gays.”  Immigrants are said to be “taking our jobs” and “spending our few resources.”  In this room, we know better, but that’s not true of so many outside this room. 

Fear is a beast that must constantly be fed.  And, fear is always fed and justified by claiming that “the others” are subhuman; dangerous; and frequently, that God is against them too.  

I am here tonight to speak on behalf of my colleagues - the faculty and staff of DePaul University  - who know these young people personally.  They know their high grades, their work ethic, their youthful enthusiasms and friendships, their laughter, but also their hopes and their fears. 

Until the day comes that the Dream Act is adopted into law, I promise you that DePaul will continue accepting such students when we can, providing modest scholarships, and sending them to private sources of charity.  But I must also tell you that we will tell some that their Dreams cannot be achieved at DePaul, and may not be able to be achieved at all.  Charity will not solve this problem.  Only changing the law will solve this problem. 

DePaul University rarely takes political stands.  This is, in fact, the first time in recent memory that we’ve ever done so, but we’ve decided to take a strong and public stand for the Dream Act.  Regardless of party or ideology, we believe The Dream Act is smart social policy and has a significant payoff for the country in the long run.  We also know the young people who it will benefit and we know that they are great young people who will build this nation’s future. 

Thank you for being among those who believe the same, and for being willing to work on their behalf.   I truly believe you are doing the work of God.  God bless you.​​