By Susan M. Weishar, Ph.D., Policy and Research Fellow at the Jesuit Social Research Institute, Loyola University New Orleans
The Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) was founded in 2007 as a collaborative project of Loyola University New Orleans and the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. The mission of JSRI is to promote a faith that does justice through education, advocacy and research on the core issues of race, poverty and migration. Our geographic focus is the Gulf South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.
In August 2010, I was hired as the JSRI “Migration Specialist.” Here is a brief overview of the immigration-related work of JSRI in our three areas of activity—advocacy, education and research.
As with all of the work performed at JSRI, we approach advocacy through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching by conducting both social analysis (an exploration of historical and structural relationships, often best revealed in the social sciences) and theological reflection (asking what core values of Scripture and Church teachings are pertinent to the social reality being addressed).
Immigrant advocacy at JSRI involves a variety of methods, from organizing delegations to visit local offices of members of Congress, to writing sign-on letters or op-eds that address issues like the extension of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), opposition to anti-sanctuary city bills, and support for comprehensive immigration reform. During the spring 2018 semester, a sign-on letter in support of Dreamers for the Loyola University Community Action Program garnered over 250 signatures from students, faculty and staff.
JSRI’s Executive Director, Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J., and I have testified at Louisiana state legislative hearings to oppose a state-wide E-verify system; a SB 10 copy-cat bill; legislation that would make it difficult for immigrants to marry in Louisiana; and anti-sanctuary city bills.
JSRI has organized several immigrant advocacy events to lift up the voices of local immigrants and to widen the circle of their advocates. In November 2013, eighty Catholic sisters from twelve religious communities made passionate appeals for immigration reform alongside immigrant workers at a “Nuns Rally for Immigration Reform” event on the front lawn of Loyola University New Orleans. When arguments addressing President Obama’s Executive Order on DACA and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parental Accountability) were heard at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in July 2015, JSRI organized an Interfaith Prayer Vigil in front of the courthouse. We helped organize a rally for Syrian immigrants later that year in the French Quarter. In August 2015 (coinciding with the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina), JSRI held a “Homeowners Rally for Immigrant Justice,” again on Loyola’s front lawn. At that event, immigrants shared their experience rebuilding New Orleans, while local homeowners expressed their deep gratitude to the immigrant workers who made their homes whole again.
We make sure that advocacy events like these are well covered by local and sometimes national media. We regularly ask the more than 3,600 people who have registered with our email advocacy program, Voter Voice, to respond to Action Alerts we prepare on urgent immigrant justice matters.
Some of the most important venues for educating Gulf Coast Catholics and others on immigration issues are our in-house publications. The JustSouth Quarterly is mailed to over 1,200 readers, including many Catholic leaders in the five Gulf South states. Our monthly JustSouth newsletter is sent via e-mail to all students, faculty and staff members at Loyola, as well as 2,100 additional subscribers. In addition to educating our readers on the social, economic and spiritual dimensions of migration, I also strive to explain how immigrants are personally experiencing our nation’s immigration crisis.
In 2011, I developed an ESL program at a local Catholic church to serve immigrants from Central America after the Sunday morning Spanish Mass. Through the program, called Café con Ingles, Loyola students provide one-on-on tutoring services as part of their Service Learning requirements. Evaluations indicate that the program has helped the Loyola students gain important insights into local immigrants’ lives, including the difficult and often painful challenges of living as undocumented individuals.
In 2017, JSRI concluded a two-year study on how faith communities in the Southern United States can better welcome immigrants, advocate for immigrant justice, and re-frame the public discourse on immigration. Recovering the Human Face of Immigration in the U.S. South was done in collaboration with the University of Florida and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Some of my research efforts over the years have included analyses of a project on alternatives to detention; immigrants’ experiences with electronic monitoring devices; and outcomes from specific JSRI education and advocacy programs. An on-going research project involves collecting and analyzing information on human rights violations at privately-owned prisons and immigrant detention centers.
For the past two years, Rev. Rafael Garcia, S.J. has served as a JSRI associate in the El Paso, TX area, where he ministers regularly to detained adult immigrants and immigrant children living in youth shelters. Fr. Rafa is also leading efforts to establish The Encuentro Project to provide border “immersion” experiences and, most important, encounters between visitors and people who live in the border region.
JSRI developed the Catholic Teach-In on Migration (CTOM) to create greater empathy and understanding (a “culture of encounter”) of undocumented immigration. We do this by bringing together undocumented immigrants and U.S.-born Catholics in a prayerful, intimate and safe space. Since 2014, JSRI has conducted twelve CTOMs in multiple cities: New Orleans, LA (two at Loyola); El Paso, TX; St. Louis, MO; and Biloxi, MS.
This past summer, JSRI developed a Novena for Migrant Families to encourage people of faith to pray together for migrant families; develop a deeper understanding of the challenges facing our immigrant sisters and brothers; and demonstrate solidarity with families fleeing poverty, violence and oppression for peace and freedom in the U.S.
We welcome readers to visit our website, loyno.edu/jsri, where they can find all documents needed to conduct a Catholic Teach-In on Migration and/or a Novena for Migrant Families, as well as links to JSRI publications, information on The Encuentro Project, and Action Alerts.