Come Learn with Us
David L. Parkyn

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, handles requests from people around the globe who desire to become U.S. residents and  citizens. Until February, its mission statement included this paragraph:

USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.

Earlier this year that paragraph was replaced with the following:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.

The rewriting of this small paragraph represents a substantial shift in the federal government’s perspective on immigration. While much of USCIS’s day-to-day work no doubt remains the same, this updated mission statement shows that how we connect with others has changed. Once we were a nation that welcomed others to our shores; going forward, we will be a nation that secures our borders with the purpose of keeping others out. USCIS once facilitated immigrants’ arrivals to the United States and fostered the vision of America articulated in 1958 by John F. Kennedy as “a nation of immigrants.” Now, USCIS stands as a sentinel on our borders, to “safeguard,” “protect,” and “secur[e] the homeland.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this change. Congress can’t agree on a national immigration policy. The vacuum of leadership resulting from this indecision coupled with the priorities of the current presidential administration open the door for unwitting changes in immigration practice.

My perspective on the decision to eliminate from our national narrative this bedrock principle—America as a nation of immigrants—is framed by a life of service in American higher education.

Why should those of us working in higher education in the United States be concerned with our nation’s evolving practices on immigration? First, many of our students have a personal stake in these practices, either for themselves or on behalf of their families. And those of us at historically faith-based institutions have an important second reason: our commitment to immigrants is often informed by the teaching of scripture. But the intersection of the broad higher educational community with national immigration practice reaches beyond personal interests and institutional mission. Indeed, the immigrant experience has profoundly marked American colleges and universities, both individually and collectively, for nearly two centuries.

This simple factor provides a lens through which to measure the proposals by the Trump administration—whether to “build the wall,” crack down on undocumented immigrants, void the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), slash the number of legal immigrants and refugees welcomed each year to our borders, order deportation of hundreds of thousands of documented refugees who have lived in our country for two decades, give preference to immigrants who speak English and bring certain skills, or favor prospective immigrants from certain (white) countries while diminishing the number of immigrants of color from other parts of the world.

Many U.S. colleges and universities can tell their own version of this story. It is a narrative that is easy to illustrate from the 125-year history of the campus I served as president for the past eleven years—North Park University in Chicago.

On a Saturday afternoon in January 2017, I attended a memorial service for Professor Frank Steinhart. He had been our teacher, colleague, and friend. Frank had recently announced his plan to retire after more than four decades at North Park, where he had served as faculty member in sociology, registrar, and assistant dean.

Yet there is something more. I learned at this service that Frank was born in Latvia. When he was six months old, his mother (along with his aunt, grandmother, and great-aunt) fled with Frank from their home to Hamburg, Germany. For several years little Frank and his mother lived in camps for displaced persons. When Frank was eight, they came to the United States as refugees and settled in Chicago. Here he went to school, learned English, and eventually became a college professor.

In a twist of irony, on the same weekend as Frank’s memorial service, the Trump administration proposed an indefinite halt of immigration for citizens from Syria, a 90-day suspension of immigration for citizens from seven countries, and a 120-day suspension of refugees from anywhere in the world. This coincided with the administration’s decision to abandon the DACA program, which protects some 700,000 individuals who had been brought to America as young children without required documentation.

As I sat in the service that Saturday afternoon, listening to stories about Frank and simultaneously contemplating the news from Washington, it struck me so clearly: if eight-year-old Frank and his mother had landed at a U.S. airport on the day of this memorial service, they would have been turned away. Any potential little Frank held for teaching students in an American college, for contributing to the American academy, would have been crushed.

This realization made me understand why Frank loved the American higher education community, and this particular school, so deeply. Frank loved teaching at North Park because of its connection to the American immigrant experience. Throughout his career, Frank saw his own refugee immigrant experience reflected in the lives of so many of his students and their families, as well as in the lives of the immigrants who started the school nearly a century before Frank came to the United States.

In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, which made 160 acres of federal land available to an individual or family willing to settle and farm the land. During this same period, many Scandinavians, especially from Sweden, emigrated to the United States, driven by years of crop failures, high unemployment, and the yearning for independence from a state-church. The Homestead Act made their relocation possible.

Though this invitation to settle in America was robust, it was limited primarily to immigrants from northern Europe. This initial act of welcome, however, set the stage a century later for adoption of the far more inclusive Naturalization and Immigration Act of 1965.

Between 1870 and 1900, many new Swedish immigrants cleared farmland and cultivated crops in the Great Plains, while others chose to settle in cities, particularly Chicago. Some also started churches, including in 1885 a new American church: the Mission Friends. Just six years later, this small immigrant church community started a school, which eventually grew into a college, which eventually welcomed Frank Steinhart to its faculty.

Two years after the school’s founding, David Nyvall, its twenty-eight-year-old president, was invited to participate in the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. Organizers of this ecumenical, interfaith gathering—the first of its kind—believed that people of different faiths held more commonalities than differences. The participants came together to learn from each other and, by doing so, to advance the commitment of religious faith around the world.

The published record of the Parliament summarizes Nyvall’s description of his infant school. “There is no common or fixed creed or special doctrine that binds [the school together]…. Differences are permitted to exist as unavoidable in our imperfect knowledge of truth….[That we have] harmony in the midst of this diversity is largely owing to the [fact that]…hospitality is especially insisted upon.”

Despite the young president’s assessment, the school at this time was hardly diverse—all the students were Swedish immigrants more comfortable speaking and writing in Swedish than English. Yet by drawing on his personal immigrant experience and those of his students, Nyvall outlined an educational philosophy for our country and its academy that acknowledges, in a spirit of intellectual humility, that our understanding of truth is always “imperfect.” In these settings there will be differences among us, he noted, yet because we are the academy, we will own this diversity of thought and language, culture and faith, and we will embrace these differences through a deep commitment to hospitality.

Over the past fifty years, the cover of Time magazine has twice featured a North Park graduate. In a 1964 cover story, “Massacre in Congo,” Time carried a cover portrait of Paul Carlson, a North Park alumnus with family roots in Sweden. “He was a highly skilled physician whohad gone to the Congo to treat the sick,” the article read. In the country for less than a year when civil war broke out, Carlson planned to leave when danger came near. He unwittingly stayed too long, and was caught in the gunfire and killed.

Forty-nine years later, in April 2013, Time magazine ran a cover story titled “The Latino Reformation,” which provided a look “inside the new Hispanic churches transforming religion in America.” Central to this report was a profile of another North Park alumnus, Wilfredo “Choco” de Jesús, whose two hands, clasped in a spirit ofprayer, appeared on the magazine’s cover.

Five decades apart, Carlson and de Jesús were both sons of immigrants to the United States, each first in their families to attend college, each speaking English as a second language. Together, along with many others, they provided an immigrant sensibility for their alma mater, and gave evidence to the enduring positive impact immigrants have on shaping America and its academy.

Universities in the United States today, as in decades past, lead the way in welcoming those new to America and new to the academy. When we uniformly welcome communities of disparate languages, cultures, ethnicities, and races—as well as expressions of faith—both our nation and its universities are nudged toward affirming our differences as a gift, an expression of national and institutional strength rather than weakness. When we recognize that these differences form our essential identity, they become a means to unify our nation, affirming that hospitality is to be our norm, even in the midst of difference. We welcome to our campuses those whose families are new to America because we share a confidence that as people from around the world we have more in common than we hold in difference, that we are greater together, and weaker in isolation.

As educators, we have little immediate influence over executive orders issued in Washington. What we can and must do is ensure that our institutions welcome all who desire to study with us. The American learning community, birthed within the immigrant experience and re-imagined by each generation, extends hospitality to all students as equals in the great American immigrant experiment. Our responsibility is to acclaim—to shout loudly from the cupola of every Old Main—our enduring American welcome. Immigrant, refugee, undocumented, Dreamer, Muslim, those from Scandinavia, and many others from every land around the globe: our campus is yours, our classroom doors are flung open wide for you to enter. Come learn with us.


David L. Parkyn retired in 2017 as president of North Park University in Chicago. He is now visiting lecturer of higher education in doctoral programs at Gwynedd Mercy, Immaculata, and Cabrini universities.

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