Several students from Canisius College visited Washington, D.C. as an "Alternative Spring Break.” The eight students, accompanied by a campus minister, spent March 13 to March 15 at the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Spring Teach-In on Immigration at Georgetown Prep, and then lobbied for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. Capitol on March 16.
Students from Jesuit high schools and colleges around the country converged to study immigration from a Catholic social justice perspective at the weekend conference. The teach-in was organized by the Ignatian Solidarity Network and featured speakers from the world of academia and advocacy.
Jill Marie Gerschutz, Migration Policy Director of the Jesuit Conference, and Shaina Aber, Associate for Policy at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, shared their experiences as advocates with the students.
"I feel like this trip was kind of geared toward, first, educating ourselves, and second, discovering what it means to be a citizen of the United States, what it means to be an advocate for certain reforms, what it means to be a Catholic in the U.S. and what our duties are our rights are," said Dylan Menguy, a sophomore studying French & Communication Studies at Canisius.
On Monday, March 16, the Canisius students visited the offices of Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), who represents much of Buffalo and areas near the upstate New York city. The lobbying effort opened the eyes of the Canisius visitors.
"I thought it was really exciting; it made me feel personally hopeful, but also proud to be an American. (To visit a Congressman's office) and say, 'Hello, here we are, we need this for our district,' was empowering," said Sarah E. Signorino, Associate Campus Minister at Canisius.
"I do feel a lot prouder to be an American. I've done something not a lot of people are able to do; not a lot of people are willing to do, as well. Having had that experience, and realizing it's not that scary, it's really a great experience," said Mr. Menguy.
The visit to the halls of the Capitol building also opened up Mr. Menguy's eyes to the difficulties of immigration reform. During a tour of the complex, he began to speak with one of the docents, and shared the reason for his trip.
"I told her we were here for a conference on immigration. Once I said the word 'immigration,' she had different opinions and viewpoints. That was the first time, since I have been in D.C., that I ran into someone who had strikingly conflicting viewpoints from my own," said Mr. Menguy.
"I usually use these situations as an opportunity to enlighten people, but I found it really difficult, she had a really tough skin, and strong convictions. It was a little disheartening, but at the same time, I think I may have planted a seed to make her think differently about immigration. And I know certainly being here in D.C. I've felt like I've exercised my right as a citizen to speak out and ruffle feathers," said Mr. Menguy.
He used the experience as a learning opportunity as well.
"Knowing that there are so many different facets to this issue, and just kind of knowing those facets makes it easier to communicate and easier to express how I feel and to formulate better responses. It helps me to condition myself to go out there and share with the world how I feel," said Mr. Menguy.
The U.S. Congress should expect to hear more from Canisius students in the future.
"I'm kind of embarrassed I had never (spoken to my representatives in Congress) before. Now I realize it'll be really easy to go to the local office in Buffalo and say, 'oh, hi! Remember me? We came down and chatted with you?' said Mrs. Signorino.
"Just to call, or send a letter, it's really easy to do. I think this will facilitate doing more of that," Mrs. Signorino said.
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