Seeking Justice for Migrants

April 16, 2020
Abel Rodriguez
HDS graduate and 2020 Gomes Honoree Abel Rodriguez / Courtesy photo

The day that Abel Rodriguez won his first asylum case was the best of his career as an immigration attorney. He was overjoyed and his work seemed full of meaning after accompanying his client through a process that was long and stressful but ultimately successful. Then he did the math.

“I thought about how many people get deported in the time it takes to try one asylum case,” Rodriguez recalls. “I started working more with grass roots organizations in Philadelphia, supporting them in different legal capacities. Also, I missed teaching, so I decided to return to academia to combine my passion for education and activism.”

Today, Rodriguez, MTS ’04, not only continues to practice immigration law and work with nonprofit organizations, but also gets students involved in this effort as the Director of the Center on Immigration and as an Assistant Professor of Religion, Law, and Social Justice, both at Cabrini University in Philadelphia, PA. For his commitment to education—and his advocacy for the humane treatment of migrants and refugees—Rodriguez has been recognized by his fellow HDS graduates as a 2020 Peter J. Gomes, STB ’68 Distinguished Alumni Honoree.

“I was thrilled when I heard that I’d been named a Gomes Honoree,” he says. “The summer between my two years at HDS was my first work on the US-Mexico border. It’s such an incredible honor!”

At Cabrini, Rodriguez teaches “Morality Matters,” a course about immigration law and social justice. In class, students explore the way religion informs their understanding of oppression and liberation, and then think of how they’re called to act.

“We focus on Catholic social teaching in particular,” Rodriguez says. “What does it have to teach us about the way that immigrants are treated and the difficulties they face in migrating?”

In the spirit of the 2020 Gomes Honors theme of “border crossings,” Rodriguez teaches in a cross-disciplinary way, mixing academics and activism. He notes that young people in other parts of the world often lead movements that transform societies. In his classroom, students learn first-hand that they don’t have to wait until they’re older to be civically engaged.

“We’re working to end family detentions,” he explains. “There’s a facility in Berks County, PA that houses adults with children. There have been abuses. People are held there for prolonged periods of time. A child detainee vomited blood and didn’t see a doctor for days. One of the guards sexually assaulted a 19-year-old mother. I’m getting students involved with the Shut Down Berks Coalition to put an end to it.”

Rodriguez says that it was at HDS that he first learned to cross borders and blend scholarship with activism and to ground everything he does in an ethical framework.

“Going to HDS was foundational to me as an attorney, an academic, and an advocate,” he says. “It allowed me to build a foundation and think of things in terms not only of the moral, political, and cultural dimensions of the work I did academically, but also the moral dimensions of the practice of law and of representing clients later in my career.”

Rodriguez admits that recent years have been particularly challenging for him as an immigration attorney and an activist. He’s deeply concerned about the surge in hostility to people seeking refuge from violence and persecution in their home countries—and in the policies that flow from xenophobia. As hard as it is for him, though, he carries on because he understands how much harder it is for the people he fights for.

“The folks who are currently being targeted or impacted by policy changes and rhetoric directed at them, they have to keep going,” he says. “There are certainly challenges for those of us who work as allies or advocates, but it doesn’t compare to what they’re experiencing. We keep going in order to continue to be allies to them.”

by Paul Massari