Mercy Students Show Passion for Justice
By Marianne Comfort
The enthusiasm and commitment to social justice demonstrated by students at Mercy colleges and universities last week gives me great hope for the future.
Thirty-two students arrived in D.C. for four days of immersion in legislative advocacy, organized by the Conference for Mercy Higher Education and the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ Institute Justice Team. From the first night, it was clear that many of them were informed about the problems with our nation’s immigration system, the issue that we were going to focus on throughout the week, and that they brought great passion to the topic.
Members of the Leadership Team and Justice Team opened with overviews of Mercy founder Catherine McAuley, the Critical Concerns and Mercy’s legislative and policy work. Many of the students let us know that they already were steeped in the Mercy values and the Sisters’ commitments to persons who are poor, Earth, immigration reform, non-violence, the safety and welfare of women, and anti-racism efforts.
The students were visibly moved by the stories of undocumented youth during a visit to Casa de Maryland, an organization that provides supportive services to immigrants (mostly Latinos) and empowers immigrants to speak out for their rights and for supportive legislation. Hearing from two young men who came to the U.S. as children and now face obstacles to further education and employment stiffened the students’ resolve to support the DREAM Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for such immigrants. Yet the next day they learned to appreciate the viewpoints of all sides of the issue in a role-playing exercise that included border patrol agents and workers fearful of losing jobs to immigrants.
During the immigration 101 session, the presenter Jen Smyer from Church World Service noted that she was impressed with the questions the students were asking and the depth of their knowledge. After a panel discussion with advocates who talked about the range of topics being addressed by faith-based groups, one student gushed to me that she felt so empowered, that she did indeed have a voice in the political sphere.
The students were at their most animated, though, after they returned from visits with aides to their senators and representatives. In a session beforehand on how to lobby, some of them were subdued and expressed feeling quite intimidate but after the visits, some were excited to report that aides actually listened to their points of view and promised to carry their reasons for supporting the DREAM Act to the legislator. Others were equally excited after an argument they had with an aide. I happened to be in one legislator’s office when a student kept pressing the aide to state the senator’s position on the DREAM Act or immigration in general; she told him it was just unacceptable for the senator to keep his views from his constituents.
On the last day, the meeting room buzzed with the students’ conversations about how they were going to continue their advocacy when they returned to their respective campuses in the fall. Ideas included coordinating a voter registration drive, adding advocacy options to a volunteer service week, starting an immigration committee, posting immigration facts around campus, presenting immigration issues to criminal justice classes and organizing a diversity day to highlight various cultures.
Most of the students also signed up to be Mercy advocates, to receive email messages when legislation on critical issues is up for a vote and their voices are needed.
My “high” from the experience lingered for days, as I remained energized by these young people’s passion and enthusiasm for being part of Mercy’s justice efforts.