Remarks at the 2016 Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference

November 22, 2016

Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice

It is a great pleasure to be here and to welcome all of you to the University of San Diego and the 2016 Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference.

As a relatively new member of the Torero family in my second year as president, I wanted to share with you my initial impressions of this campus community and a personal reflection, which are relevant to the mission of this outstanding and timely conference. 

It goes without saying that this is a visually appealing campus with pristine architecture and a natural beauty situated in one of the best climates in the nation. But that beauty, the beauty of our campus or our climate is in some ways superficial, it only tells part of the story of USD.

If you look deeper, you will find a deeply compassionate, diverse and inclusive community of scholars. Our students and faculty come to us from all over the world. We have students from 75 different nations on campus. Over 8% of our students are international. We are a community made up of immigrants, the children and grandchildren of immigrants—our community is open to all. We cherish our diverse learning community and embrace the sometimes difficult dialogues that happen on a campus where different worldviews are present.

This Catholic university has a special charism—an authentic recognition of the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual and the human imperative to care for our world and one another. From the first day we arrived on this campus, my family and I experienced a remarkably warm and welcoming reception.  Other first-time campus visitors have described their experience as one of “audacious hospitality.”  This hospitality at USD translates into action, and is one of the reasons why USD is one of only 36 universities in the world designated by Ashoka U as a “Changemaker Campus.” 

Many hear this mantra repeated throughout the campus and ask, what exactly does it mean to be a Changemaker Campus?  The Changemaker designation and philosophy is strongly aligned with our Catholic identity and the Catholic intellectual tradition.  Both reflect a deep conviction to develop ethical leaders and compassionate citizens committed to the common good.  Students are empowered to conceive ideas and launch solutions that improve the human condition.

Each year, more than 800 USD faculty, staff and students engage in partnerships that link the learning in the classroom to real-world experiences in the community. Many of these partnerships are facilitated by our Mulvaney Center for Community, Awareness and Social Action here in San Diego, across the border in Mexico and throughout the nation and abroad.

As a university located near an international boarder, the principles of access and inclusion have deep roots on this campus. There has been a long commitment of supporting students and employees, regardless of their citizenship status or nation of origin, who seek a better life by either pursuing a college degree or serving our campus community.

For example, I have colleagues at USD, who live in Tijuana and commute to work weekly or even daily. They are as much a part of this community as any other member.

I am certain that many gathered today were concerned and even outraged by some of the rhetoric and at times vitriolic language of the recent U.S. presidential campaign as well as the isolationist tone of many. Because of that, two weeks prior to the election, I joined more than 30 leaders in higher education, foreign policy, peacebuilding and national security in signing a joint statement urging America’s next president to pursue policies and practices that foster mutual understanding and make our country more welcoming and globally engaged. 

As a community of Changemakers, our Torero family understands the importance of unity and collaborating with our local community, and communities around the world, with empathy and compassion.  The joint statement also highlighted the importance of valuing diversity in our nation and in our world, and honoring our tradition as a nation of immigrants.

As I watched the results of the U.S. presidential election from Japan while participating in the 2016 Kyoto Prize ceremonies, it became apparent to me that the world was also watching our election results, and specifically, the reaction of the people in the United States. Reflecting upon the uncertainty of the current environment and the passion-filled responses to the election results, I was reminded of the words of Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address when, in the face of a very contentious environment, he invoked a call for “the better angels of our nature.”

Some people across our nation have found it difficult to channel their "better angels" due to the divisive nature of the presidential campaign. At times, the language felt contrary to the values of civility and inclusion we hold dear on our campus. 

As a Catholic university and a Changemaker Campus, we challenge ourselves to rise above the rhetoric and reaffirm our commitment to treat every member of our community with dignity and respect as we promote social justice and attend to the needs of all, including the marginalized and less fortunate.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed an outpouring of support on our campus for our students who are immigrants, particularly those students who are eligible for deferred action under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—or DACA process.  International and immigrant students at the University of San Diego, including those who have benefited from DACA, have been outstanding student scholars and student leaders, serving our campus, our local community, and communities around the world.

That is why, once again last week, I joined more than 90 university presidents from across the country in signing a joint statement directed to our country’s leaders that the DACA process should be upheld, continued and expanded.

Many have asked what we will do to protect students on our campus. In a memo I sent to the university community last week, I reaffirmed our full support, including our long standing practice that a student’s immigration status is considered as part of a student’s educational record. I made it clear that we will only release the private information of our students to government agencies in response to a subpoena, warrant, or other court order.

It is times like these when I am reminded of my paternal grandmother who was very instrumental in my growth and development.  As a refugee and an immigrant, she became a U.S. citizen when she was a teenager. She loved this country and always taught me the principles of being a good citizen, which included volunteering in your community and participating in elections. Throughout my childhood, my grandmother provided me with unconditional love but always reminded me that “you are no better than anyone else, but you are also just as good as anyone.” To her, it was important to treat others with dignity, no matter what their position in the world, and by doing so, you would earn respect in return. I thought I knew what she meant, but I guess I never really understood why she was always encouraging me to treat everyone with dignity no matter their station in life.

That was until I was seventeen and got a summer job as a janitor cleaning the restrooms in some local factories in my hometown. It was a humbling experience for me. I learned firsthand what it was like to be “invisible” as I scrubbed floors and toilets and watched people walk right by me and not even recognize my presence. There were even people I knew from my childhood who worked in the factories who seemed not to remember my name. It outraged me that people couldn’t see past my job and my uniform to recognize who I was as a person.

When I complained to my grandmother, she reminded me to never forget the feeling of being “invisible” and to do the best job I could because it was still my work and in that I should take pride. Eventually, I learned to always take pride in my own work and to respect the work of others. I pledged I would never become so self-absorbed with my own importance in life to not personally pay attention to others who might not have the same title, the same position, or the same good fortune as me.

We are at a critical moment in our nation’s history. There are those among us in the US who would like for us to return to a time when whole segments of society were silent or invisible. As a university community, we must stand as an example of openness and inclusion. We must not give into despair or anger. We must remain optimistic and hopeful.

One way to accomplish this is by encourage all young people, to get out of their comfort zones and get deeply involved in the community, including the community just south of the border. These opportunities to “walk in others shoes” are essential for people to find value in every person, no matter who they are, where they were born or what they do for a living.

Our event sponsors—Catholic Charities of San Diego, the Center for Migration Studies of New York and the Diocese of San Diego—know what it means to walk in a lot of different shoes.  The annual Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference is all about welcoming, empowering and caring for the well-being of migrants, immigrants and refugees. This Conference’s agenda also explores practical models of service at a time when we very much need to remind ourselves of our Christian responsibilities toward our neighbors.

The importance of immigrant ministries and academia working together to foster welcoming attitudes in the spirit of the Gospels and in Catholic social teachings cannot be emphasized enough, especially at this time of heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy proposals.

Earlier this month, we were very fortunate to have as a guest speaker at USD Archbishop Bashar Warda from the Archdiocese of Erbil in northern Iraq.  The Archbishop shared his insights into the desperate humanitarian crisis impacting Iraq and Syria and the thousands of displaced people reaching out for basic human necessities. When asked what we can do to help in this crisis, the Archbishop first asked for our prayers.  He then asked for help in telling the story of the persecution so that those who are suffering are not forgotten. 

Many of the individuals the Archbishop was referring to are right here in our San Diego communities, where good people are neglected, abandoned and at times treated as if they were invisible.  Whether from Iraq, Syria, South America, Central America, Mexico or any other part of the world, we recognize our moral responsibility toward those who are without the basic necessities of life, particularly as a result of tragic historical events. 

This is not only our duty in solidarity with our fellow human beings, but as St. Teresa of Calcutta often said, “We are all called to be Missionaries of Charity,” starting in our own neighborhoods. Let us use this time together to awaken our own desires to serve God’s people and all of humanity with greater skill, ingenuity and creativity.

Let me conclude by asking you to join me in offering prayers for national unity, for our president-elect, and for our other leaders in government so that they act with wisdom, understanding, and a sincere sense of obligation to all of God's creation in the months and years ahead.

James THarris III, DEd