Students at Catholic Teach-In determined to act on immigration issue

Lisa Johnston |

Brought to the United States by their parents at a very young age, they've learned English, achieved a high school education and become a part of their communities. They see themselves as Americans.

According to a report by, “Young Lives on Hold,” about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. When they aspire to go to college along with their peers, their undocumented status becomes a deterrent. The report states that only 5 to 10 percent of undocumented students go on to college because of fears that they will be exposed and deported.

Kelly, who came to the United States with her parents, might never achieve her goal of attending college and becoming a physician. The college-age woman talked to students and a faculty member from Nerinx Hall High School last month at a Catholic Teach-In on Migration for Catholic Youths, sponsored by the archdiocese's Peace and Justice Commission and several other groups. The event was an opportunity for local Catholic high school students to hear from young immigrants about their experiences of violence and injustice in Central America and to pray and reflect on ways to respond to the crisis.


Several of the high school students called what they learned "eye-opening" and are determined to follow up on the issue.

Shelby Long, a junior at Nerinx Hall High School, said she felt sick to her stomach and frustrated after hearing from her peer, Kelly, who "had encountered so many horrors while trying to escape the even worse horror she called 'home.' I feel frustrated because this young woman who has so many ambitions will never get to fulfill these ambitions because of the simple fact she is not an American citizen. I wish there was just some way I could give her my citizenship so she could go to college and pursue her dream to be a doctor, but I cannot."

A smart, hard-working girl, who is no different from any other American teenager, is denied the opportunity to succeed, Long said.

The Nerinx student has been sharing Kelly's story with others, especially fellow students, and she intends to support immigration policy reform as a voter. She was touched by Kelly's advice to "take all the opportunities you are given. Not everyone gets them."

Jack Sullivan, a junior at St. John Vianney High School, said that meeting an immigrant teen "made me realize how lucky I am and made me want to do something about this issue, because no child deserves the treatment that these young migrant children have to go through to have a better life, whether they were born here or not."

Jackson Hegger, a junior at Vianney, said the hardships that the boys and girls, some as young as 10, went through to arrive in the United States was heart-wrenching as they risked "life and limb to find a better life in our country."

The undocumented immigrants add to the economy, he stated. "They aren't coming into our country to steal jobs. They're coming here to escape violence, poverty, and corruption. They just want a better life. Is it morally right to shove them away?"

Human dignity

Carrie Mitchell, religion teacher and social service project coordinator at Vianney, said her students received a good review of Catholic social teaching, especially on human dignity and the U.S. bishop's positions on immigration, refugees and asylum seekers.

The migrants who spoke to her students "put a real face and a real struggle with what I've taught in class ... . It made the Church's teaching come alive in a way that I couldn't have done in my classroom."

In the fall, Nerinx Hall's student government chose the refugee crisis as their target area for student fund raising. A weeklong effort raised more than $33,000 to be divided among Catholic Charities, Doctors without Borders and the International Institute in St. Louis. The school's Founder's Day had the theme "Welcome the Stranger." Becky Swofford, a Nerinx Hall theology teacher, said more will be planned at the school. Students are already planning again to attend a spring break trip to El Salavador and other programs.

Follow up

John Powell, a religion teacher at Villa Duchesne High School, said hearing powerful stories from young people fleeing violence and aspiring to better lives here caught the students' attention. "Students can read Catholic social teaching about immigration until they're blue in the face, but one story from an immigrant can inspire them to be activists for just immigration reform. I'm hoping that we have a social justice club next year that could be active on this issue and other issues that may be the focus of future archdiocesan teach-ins."

James Whalen, a junior at Vianney, said he's unsure of how he will follow up on the event, but "I am praying for those people seeking refuge in our nation, and I pray that our national leaders can find a way to help those who want to be a part of this amazing nation we call home." 

Catholic Teach-In

WHO: 103 students from 19 Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis

WHY: To create a "culture of encounter" by bringing together teens from the U.S. with 12 recently arrived immigrant teens from Central America to hear their migration stories. After an introduction about the current migration crisis and Catholic principles on migration, the participants broke into small groups in which each migrant teen was interviewed by a facilitator. The model for this event was designed by the Jesuit Social Research Institute.

REACTION: Most of the students hadn't heard about the issue from a personal level.

SPONSORS: Peace and Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Jesuit Social Research Institute, St. Francis Community Services Southside Center, Migrant and Immigration Community Action Project, Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, Jesuits of the Central and Southern Province. 

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