Georgetown University Law Center is partnering with Jesuit Refugee Service/USA to address challenges presented by the influx of immigration from Central America to the United States, which peaked in the summer of 2014 when thousands of unaccompanied children crossed the Texas border in hope of receiving protection in the United States.
Georgetown Law will provide a range of services to the communities, including research, training and direct representation, according to Jane Aiken, the associate dean for experiential education and director of the Community Justice Project at Georgetown Law.
“It’s a terrific thing, what’s happening across this country at Jesuit law schools,” Aiken said. “There’s an enormous amount of service around this particular issue. This coalition is a way to bring together a whole number of people who have their finger on the pulse of a lot of different communities.”
In addition to Georgetown, the 12 other participating law schools — all part of Jesuit universities — are Boston College, Creighton University, Fordham University, Gonzaga University, Loyola University Chicago, Loyola Marymount University, Loyola University New Orleans, Saint Louis University, Santa Clara University, Seattle University, University of Detroit Mercy and University of San Francisco.
The number of immigrants into the United States from Central America has steadily increased for the past few years. Since 2009, the number of asylum-seekers increased from 5,369 in fiscal year 2009 to 36,174 in 2013. Individuals from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico accounted for 70 percent of this increase, according to a March 2014 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
According to JRS/USA, the total number of unaccompanied children in the U.S. rose from 3,933 in 2011 to 51,705 in 2014.
There has also been a marked increase in single-parent families, predominantly mothers with young children, coming to the United States. The number of individuals arriving in family units rose from 14,855 in 2013 to 68,445 in 2014.
JRS/USA Assistant Director for Policy Giulia McPherson said that the factors driving this surge in numbers are complex, involving both push factors driving people out of their home countries and pull factors attracting people to the United States.
“The individuals and families fleeing their countries constitute a mixed migration flow,” McPherson said. “The reasons are often complicated and have many layers to them, but many are fleeing targeted persecution in their countries. The reasons for this can be fairly complicated, including factors like economic disparities, poverty and especially organized violence.”
48 percent of the displaced children interviewed for the UNHCR report shared experiences of how they had been personally affected by violence in their region in the form of organized crime, including drug cartels, gangs and state actors.
The mission of JRS/USA is to identify and alleviate these and other issues surrounding refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, working with communities in over 50 countries, providing access to education, health and social services.
McPherson added that the partnership between JRS/USA and these law schools was prompted by dialogue recognizing the shared Jesuit mission.
“We came to the understanding that both of our institutions were involved in this work and had the Jesuit tradition in common,” McPherson said. “We thought it would be pretty powerful to collaborate by putting together this initiative. We really feel that we will be able to add to the ongoing conversation, by addressing the issues raised through the experiences and findings that these law schools are encountering in their day-to-day conversations with these individuals and families.”
Through the partnership, JRS/USA and the Jesuit law schools will publish a paper aimed at developing policy recommendations to improve the legal environment surrounding immigrants seeking protection in the United States.
“The purpose is searching for all the participating law schools to pull together some findings based on their first-hand experiences,” McPherson said. “How is each school engaged with migrants seeking protection, what types of individuals and families are arriving, and what are some of the stories the schools are hearing? We’re hoping to highlight some personal stories to personalize a lot of the statistics floating around in the conversation, to really humanize the issue.”
The institutions hope to publish the paper in the next several months, which will then be disseminated to key individuals both in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
Aiken said the partnership fits with the Jesuit tradition of welcoming the stranger and serving the community.
“This is about social justice,” Aiken said. “There’s not a definite answer as to what’s the appropriate response, because it’s a complicated issue. But certainly compassion should inform anything that we do. And that’s something that Jesuit law schools in particular should be focused on in training students.”
McPherson agreed and added that Catholic traditions could help in addressing these widespread issues.
“We really see this Catholic tradition as a powerful way of moving an issue forward,” McPherson added. “This issue has unfortunately fallen from the headlines in many ways, and we hope that by coming together in a unique way we can help to remedy some of these pressing issues.”
McPherson also highlighted Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor’s role in the process of the partnership.
“We’re really looking forward to working with all of these law schools, and with Georgetown in particular, Dean Treanor was really critical in terms of pulling together all of the other participating law schools,” McPherson said. “Without that leadership, I don’t think we could have gotten this far.”
Treanor echoed McPherson’s optimism about the partnership in a press release.
“We are honored to join our fellow law schools in working with JRS/USA to help raise awareness of the plight faced by these vulnerable migrant children and families,” Treanor said. “Our Jesuit identity is reflected in our commitment to this critical issue.”