More than 50 community leaders and scholars from the New York City area came together on June 1 and 2 for a summit geared toward creating a more just sustainable and dignified immigration system.

“Partnering for Migration Justice: Building Sustainable Collaborations between Migrant Communities and Higher Education,” featured a welcoming address by Jacquelyn Pavilon, associate director of research at the Vera Institute of Justice.

‘You Were the Only Person Who Tried’

Pavlion highlighted the importance of academic partnerships by sharing how she decided to dedicate her life to helping the less fortunate.

In college, she interned at a community-based refugee shelter in Rome. On her first day, she was asked by an Iraqi refugee to help her apply for a visa to enter the United Kingdom.

“His visa was denied, and I felt destroyed. I couldn’t imagine how he felt. He came back to say thanks, and I didn’t know why. He said, ‘Because you were the only person who kind of tried.’ I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.

“So that’s just the first way that community-based organizations and higher-ed institutions can unite.”

Jacquelyn Pavlion standing at a lectern
Jacquelyn Pavlion

Empathy Over Sympathy

The conference also featured a June 2 panel about what engaged research and accompaniment might look like. Leo Guardado, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology at Fordham, was joined by Dejia Marie James, director of policy advancement at the Partnership for the Public Good in Buffalo, New York, and Isaac Scott, founder of the Confined Arts and chair of the human services committee for Manhattan Community Board 11.

Scott, an activist who spent a decade behind bars before joining the Justice and Education Scholars program at Columbia University and earning a bachelor’s degree in visual arts, stressed the importance of sympathy over empathy.

“Surely none of you have been incarcerated, but if I share with you an experience I had about being lonely in my cell one night, I’m sure you can relate to a time when you were lonely in your life and be able to empathize,” he said.

Breaking Bread

James spoke about how in Buffalo, organizations such as hers have had a decidedly mixed experience with universities. She stressed the importance of human connection, including breaking bread.

She learned that early on in her career from a mentor who insisted on having food at every meeting.

“It broke the barrier immediately. It made us all comfortable because we’re eating and sometimes you’re embarrassed because you spill stuff on yourself or something happens. Connecting in that human way is just invaluable.”

Guardado, who has shared the story of his own immigration to the United States, said that for him, practicing accompaniment means giving preference to the most invisible members of society. He does that through research that he hopes will convince the Catholic Church to better serve immigrant communities.

“I believe that accompaniment is walking with the displaced with standard notions of rigor that hold us accountable, not just to the academy, for whom we do research, but rigor in terms of–are we credible to the communities that we work with?

Above all, he said it takes time.

“You don’t parachute anywhere and leave. It’s the foundation for long-term relationships.”

The summit was supported by a recent $200,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation. It is part of the Initiative on Migrants, Migration and Human Dignity, which is spearheaded by Fordham College at Lincoln Center professors Guardado, Carey Kasten, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish at Fordham, and James McCartin, Ph.D., associate professor of theology.

George Drance, S.J., standing at a podium
George Drance, S.J., artist-in-residence in Fordham Theatre, led participants through a reflective practice exercise, “Imagining Solidarity, Living Accompaniment.”

Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.