WASHINGTON (November 11, 2003) -- A college freshman who helped change Illinois law so that undocumented teens can qualify for in-state college tuition rates is the 2003 recipient of the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award. The Award honors young Catholics who take strong leadership roles in fighting poverty and injustice. Eight other young Catholics were finalists for the Award.
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award is presented each year by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), a national program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which attacks root causes of poverty at the community level and provides education about poverty to the non-poor, as a means of increasing understanding and solidarity.
Diana, 18, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 5 years old, has worked for two years on behalf of undocumented students like herself. (Diana is in the process of seeking legal residence. At her request, CCHD will use only her first name in publicizing the Award.) Her parish, St. Ignatius in Chicago, is a member of the Organization of the NorthEast (ONE), a community organization that advocates for social justice. ONE is a recipient of CCHD financial support.
Diana co-chaired ONE's Immigration Strategy Team for the past year as it focused on three issues regarding undocumented students: legalization, in-state tuition, and access to financial aid. During the past two years, she spoke about the issue with elected officials and leaders of Illinois universities. She met with Cardinal Francis George of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which led to his writing about the issue in an opinion piece published in the Chicago Tribune.
Her activity and leadership, along with that of others, contributed to the adoption of HB 60, entitled In-State Tuition, now Public Act 93-0007. Last May, Diana attended the ceremony in which Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich signed the legislation into law, enabling undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities.
Ana Bedard of ONE, who nominated Diana for the Award, noted that, "Undocumented students are often shut out of college; the biggest barrier is economic. They have had to pay out-of-state tuition rates until recently and are barred from receiving financial aid." Joshua Hoyt of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, who also nominated Diana, said, "She is a leader in the struggle to win legalization and the right to attend college for undocumented students," noting that access to higher education is critical to reducing poverty among immigrants. The Coalition estimates that 50-65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from high school in the United States annually. Of the estimated 5-8 million undocumented residents in the U.S., the Coalition estimates 500,000 of them live in Illinois.
Illinois joins four other states that have passed legislation to enable undocumented students to receive in-state tuition rates: New York, Texas, California, and Utah. Federal legislation has been introduced in the 108th Congress to address the situation nationally: the Student Adjustment Act of 2003 (H.R. 1684) and the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act (S. 1545).
Diana graduated from high school with a 4.4 grade point average by taking advanced placement and honors classes. She entered the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois in the Fall, and pays the same in-state tuition as other Illinois youth. She credits ONE as a source of reliable information and advocacy to facilitate college attendance by students who are still in the process of obtaining permanent residence in the United States. Prior to meeting adults and other undocumented students familiar with the issue, she had received misinformation about the likelihood of being able to attend a four-year college. Some students are afraid to apply for fear of deportation. While she always planned to attend college, she occasionally feared it was not possible, given the high cost of out-of-state tuition. "I had faith that something would work out, but I didn't know how it would work out," she said.
Growing up without permanent residence in the country presented her with challenges throughout her childhood and teenage years, she said. She took driver's education class in high school but cannot receive a driver's license. Routine school forms often asked for information she could not supply, such as a social security number. "This issue is present with me every single day of my life. I'm the person I am today because of this issue," she said, indicating that struggling with the issue of undocumented status has shaped her character. "This is who I am. You don't think about it if you are a legal resident, if you have all this information to give out," she said.
Other forces that have shaped her character are her parents and her Catholic faith. "My parents told me that if I tried my hardest and worked to be the best I can be, then people would help me, because they would know that you're working hard. For the most part, that has been true," she said. She spoke only Spanish when she arrived in the United States and began kindergarten; she remembers being in kindergarten but has no recollection that the other children spoke a different language; she simply remembers playing with them. She has little memory of Mexico. "This is where I belong and where I'm supposed to be," she said. "This is the only home I have ever known." Her family sits down at night to home-cooked Mexican meals, and celebrates both American and Mexican holidays. She is adjusting to life on campus, and is overcoming the homesickness she felt initially, away from her parents and siblings. "It's exciting. I am very happy to be here."
Diana's involvement in asking legislators to help undocumented teens afford a college education means that she has been open about her status, but she knows students whose fear has put them on a different path. "I know there are other students who have worked just as hard as I have and aren't fortunate enough to attend a four-year university. Sometimes there are circumstances outside your control."
Of her active involvement in asking for justice for undocumented students, she says, "Everything has to do with my Catholic faith. This is what the Catholic faith stands for, that all people have the same rights and deserve to be treated with dignity." She points out that Christ showed hospitality to strangers and foreigners in the gospels, often when the community was less welcoming, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. "Faith plays a big role in my life," she said, and she feels reinforced and supported in her desire to work for greater justice, rather than having to question whether the advocacy is appropriate. "My Catholic faith tells me this is right," she said.
CCHD Executive Director Father Robert J. Vitillo said, "Diana's efforts to educate legislators and others about the needs of undocumented teens who want to attend college is a testament to her courage. She lent her lived experience and credible voice to the issue and thus impressed Cardinal George and others with her sincerity and personal stake in the issue. She is an inspiring role model for young people who must honor their own dignity while they ask it for others. Her solidarity with those who want to build a better life and her willingness to follow Christ in embracing the strangers in our midst is a joy to see. We congratulate her and her family as she receives the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award."
Diana said she has stopped seeing the issue as one of access to lower tuition rates and financial aid and now sees it from a broader perspective. "There is a wider issue," she said, returning to the theme of Christ's hospitality to strangers. Though she has only beenon campus a short while, it has been a test for her. Her advocacy could have stopped when she arrived on campus, she said, because her immediate issue is resolved. Her beliefs have already widened, however, and she finds herself drawn to the struggle that other "strangers" have in the community. "These are my beliefs; I'm proving to myself that there is so much more to this," she said.
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award is presented to a young Catholic between the ages of 18 and 30 who demonstrates leadership to bring about long-term, community-based solutions to poverty in the United States. The eight finalists for the 2003 Award were: Mary Burckell, Archdiocese of New Orleans; Carmen Cerrillo, Diocese of Dallas; Alfred P. Drushler, Diocese of Wilmington; Amy Eileen Fitzgerald, Diocese of Oakland; Diana Bennett Gutierrez, Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Andrea Lombardo, Archdiocese of San Francisco; Shawna Smith, Diocese of Orange, California; and Ben Wiederholt, Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is one of the nation's largest funders of self-help, community-based programs initiated and led by the poor. Through an annual collection in parishes across the country, CCHD has distributed more than $270 million to more than 4,000 self-help projects over its 33 years. This year, CCHD announced nearly $9 million in grants to support 318 local projects, selected without regard to religious affiliation, in 45 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
For more information about CCHD, visit www.usccb.org/cchd. For more information about the Bernardin Award, contact Barbara Stephenson at 202-541-3364, or Paige McMahon, 301-320-8053.