University Leadership Initiative

Abraham Vences and his mother sat across from a lawyer at a clinic on campus Saturday afternoon as the three meticulously reviewed the application that could give him the opportunity to work and live in the United States without fear of being deported.

A recent high school graduate, Vences was one of many undocumented residents who attended a clinic aimed at helping applicants complete paperwork to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, process.

University Leadership Initiative, a student group that organizes programs and advocates for legislation that benefits the undocumented community, organized the clinic. This semester, ULI has devoted most of its time to helping students and community members apply for DACA, a policy President Obama announced in June that gives certain undocumented immigrants temporary legal work status and relief from deportation proceedings. The clinic Saturday was the fifth ULI has organized this semester. The UT Law School’s Immigration Clinic has also assisted applicants in the Austin area.

Javier Huamani, mechanical engineering senior and ULI historian, said the clinics offer applicants reliable legal advice without requiring them to pay hundreds of dollars in legal fees.

“One of the biggest issues that occurred in the very beginning when the application came out was scams and people just wanting to take advantage of what was happening,” Huamani said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure these people have the right information and they don’t have to pay anything for it.”

The clinic Saturday offered applicants free access to volunteers who helped organize their paperwork and lawyers who reviewed the applications. Huamani said most people need to get their applications reviewed by a lawyer before they submit it.

“This is a one-shot application,” Huamani said. “If you get denied there’s no reapplying. So it’s pertinent for you to be as meticulous as possible when working on the application.” 

Virginia Raymond, an immigration lawyer in Austin who volunteered at the clinic, said the documents applicants submit offer a glimpse into the lives of many of the undocumented immigrants. To be approved, applicants use personal records to prove they were younger than 16-years-old when they arrived in the U.S. and have resided here since June 15, 2007, among other requirements.

“You see all of these class photos from kindergarten up and the vaccination records and soccer photos and little notes from teachers,” Raymond said. “It’s tremendously inspiring and rewarding.”

The Obama administration released statistics Friday showing that more than 53,000 applicants have been approved since the application period began in August. Out of the 308,935 applications received nationwide, Texas ranked second among all states with 47,727 applications submitted. Most applications are still in the review process. ULI estimates they have helped 50 people apply.

Abraham Vences will soon be one of those hundreds of thousands of applicants betting their futures on the fate of their applications. After completing his paperwork Saturday, Vences said he was hopeful his approval would open new doors of opportunity in his future.

“I can find a job without having to worry about being deported, and go to school and do anything an American can,” Vences said.

Printed on Monday, November 19, 2012 as: Organization offers free legal aid to undocumented immigrants

With the click of a button, undocumented students at UT can now access vital academic, enrollment and graduation information thanks to a new website unveiled by the UT International Office.

The Longhorn Dreamers Project was created to strengthen support services on campus for undocumented students at UT in collaboration with the University Leadership Initiative, a student organization that advocates for undocumented students to achieve legal status.

University Leadership Initiative president Juana Guzmán said the new website will be a welcome change from the past when students struggled to find a central place for information.

“We didn’t have anywhere to turn to before this,” Guzmán said. “Now we have this website that has resources for us.”

Located within the UT International Office’s website, Longhorn Dreamers Project provides information on everything from financial aid and advising to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a new federal policy that allows certain undocumented residents to apply for temporary deferred deportation status and gain employment authorization. There are about 300 undocumented students currently enrolled at UT, according to the International Office.

Teri Albrecht, International Student and Scholar Services director, said the International Office identified a growing need among undocumented students to create a central place to access resources. She said that student input during the development of the website was crucial.

“We wanted to know directly from them what was the most beneficial information to provide on the website,” Albrecht said. “We went through focus groups with students to find out what they needed.”

Albrecht said she envisions the new website as being an asset not only to students but also to faculty and staff who seek to empower undocumented students.

“In the last 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of people across campus, faculty and staff, struggle to help students and didn’t know where to go necessarily,” Albrecht said. “Hopefully we’re helping faculty and staff who want to help students feel more empowered.”

University Leadership Initiative secretary Diana Morales said the website’s value lies in the fact that it was made for undocumented students by undocumented students.

“Most of the information that the website has comes from our own personal experiences,” Morales said.

Before the creation of the website, Morales said, it was often difficult for undocumented students to find a place to obtain information because their status didn’t fall into any existing administrative department.

“Here at UT, we don’t really have a specific category for us,” Morales said. “We don’t consider ourselves international students, and that can cause a lot of confusion.”

The website also offers information to undocumented high school students as well as high school counselors.

Biology freshman Josh Pina and international relations and global studies freshman Manuel Ramirez wait in the elevator of Jester West while hanging out Sunday afternoon. Pina and Ramirez are among the 17.6 percent of UT students who are Latino.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

Editor's note: This story is the first in a series exploring race, racism and diversity on the UT campus.

Two UT students aim to challenge common conceptions about young Latino men in college during their time on the 40 Acres. Manuel Ramirez, an international relations and global studies freshman, and Josh Pina, a biology freshman, are good friends who made it to UT in very different ways.


The Latino population of the U.S. is estimated at 50.5 million, about 16.3 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


The percentage of Latinos enrolled at UT has steadily risen during the last four years. Latinos currently make up 17.6 percent of student enrollment, but social expectations, negative influences in low status neighborhoods and low access to high-caliber education pose challenges that prevent them from enrolling in higher education institutions.


Ramirez was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. When Ramirez was 9-years-old, his parents crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. to work as migrant field workers picking strawberries in Texas, Tennessee and Florida. His family settled in the rural town of Florence, Texas where they did yard work for their neighbors.


Ramirez said his family was one of the five Latino families that didn’t speak English in a town with a population of about 1,000 at the time.


Pina is a third-generation Mexican-American, but he said he didn’t grow up practicing his grandparents’ Mexican customs. He grew up in the east side of Amarillo where communities consist of Latino and black neighborhoods of lower socioeconomic status. When he attended magnet programs in middle and high school on the west side of town, where the population is predominantly white, he felt like part of a minority group in school for the first time even though he did not speak Spanish.


“It was difficult to get used to the environment at first, and I had to face the stereotype my peers had of me,” Pina said. “I also had to prove that I was more than the low expectations some of my teachers had of me.”


Pina said he benefited from the education he received at the schools of higher caliber that he attended because of the standard of education and college preparation they provided. He began his first year at the University with various scholarships and credit hours he obtained through dual-enrollment classes.


During Ramirez’s junior year in high school, his counselor told him he couldn’t enroll in dual credit enrollment classes his school offered because of his undocumented status.


His counselor was unaware of House Bill 1403, a state law that allows undocumented students to attend college if they graduated from a Texas high school and resided in the state for at least three years before graduation. Ramirez said he felt defeated when his former girlfriend and her family suggested they get married in order to grant him citizenship.


Eventually, it was her family that helped him find University Leadership Initiative, an undocumented student activist group at UT that guided him through the process of enrolling in college.


Ramirez graduated third in his high school class and is one of the 600 undocumented students that ULI estimates are enrolled at UT.


“College is such a natural thing for others. It’s the next step,” he said. “It all happened so fast, and it still hasn’t hit me that I am here because I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel like.”


Pina and Ramirez both said one of the biggest challenges they faced was not having academic role models in the their communities to look up to while growing up, but they both dreamed of going to college. Today, they have become role models for others.


Pina’s parents didn’t make it to their high school graduations, as both dropped out to help their own parents make ends meet.


He considers himself a role model for his four younger siblings and for his parents. His father, Danny Pina, is following in his son’s pursuit and currently attends Amarillo College.


“My wife and I missed out on a lot of things for lack of money and encouragement,” Danny Pina said. “We didn’t have someone pushing us to be better.”


Ramirez’s younger sister Maria, who is graduating from Florence High School this year, will be attending UT in the fall.


“Our whole lives we have been limited to what we can do based on what others tell us we can and can’t do,” she said. “My brother found the motivation to prove to the people that told him he couldn’t go to college wrong.”


Ramirez said his journey is one that Latino students can follow to surpass the expectations their communities impose on them.


“You grow up with cultural and social expectations that are imposed on you by your community and eventually start believing them,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a statistic. I just wanted to go to college, and here I am.” 

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Latino Students succeed in face of odds

Kinesiology senior Griselda Onofre and her friends hold candles in front of the Tower Monday evening in remembrance of Joaquin Luna, Jr., a high school senior who committed suicide Friday. The University Leadership Initiative, a UT organization dedicated to the passage of the Dream Act, held the event to support Luna’s family and other undocumented students around the nation.

Photo Credit: Fanny Trang | Daily Texan Staff

Journalism sophomore Hector Gaucin said many undocumented students at UT have felt the same despair as Joaquin Luna Jr., a high school senior who committed suicide Nov. 25. Luna suffered from what his family said was depression stemming from the non-passage of the DREAM Act.

Gaucin is campus relations co-director for the University Leadership Initiative, a campus organization dedicated to promoting the passage of the DREAM Act, a document aiming to help provide amnesty to undocumented students. The organization held a candlelight vigil at the Tower on Monday in support of Luna. At the vigil, a crowd of 30 people sang songs of support, said prayers and held signs that said, “Yo soy Joaquin. We are Joaquin.”

“In some way, most of us are Joaquin,” Gaucin said. “We have all faced and had hard times through high school or college. This is to show high school or college dreamers that there is a support system here for them.”

Clinical professor of law Barbara Hines said current immigration laws allow students such as Luna to acquire an education but leave them without a career path in their field of study as they would be considered illegal workers. She said the world would be different with the passage of the DREAM Act, a law that would create a road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who complete two years of service in the military or at least two years at a four-year institution of higher learning.

“It would be a fundamental and important change,” Hines said. “Many DREAM students have already graduated. We would have more nurses and engineers. It would be a benefit not only to the students but to our country.”

Feelings of isolation are something Hines said she often sees in her work with undocumented students.

“For some of them, it’s very hopeless,” Hines said. “I have great admiration for them to carry on.”

Journalism sophomore Juana Guzman, campus relations co-director for the University Leadership Initiative, said undocumented students like herself were hard-hit by the death of the aspiring engineer whose family received notice of his acceptance to UT-Pan American the same day as his funeral on Dec. 1.

“As part of ULI, we focus on reaching out to undocumented students,” Guzman said. “The fact that he was an undocumented student hit us very hard, but to know his hopelessness doubled that pain. We want everyone to know that we are not alone.”

Spanish sophomore Jonathan Hernandez said he and his undocumented classmates had to keep fighting for the DREAM Act although they face challenges.

“Let’s not give up,” Hernandez said. “Let’s not give up. Let’s take that hope and make it a reality. There are so many things to fight for — your friends, your family, your own dreams. Let’s keep fighting.”

Journalism freshman Jonathan Espinoza said stories like Luna’s are what made him come to the vigil and support the DREAM Act, although he is a legal citizen.

“It’s crazy as I read through history how people have shed blood and have been through high water to get here,” Espinoza said. “Years from now, I want to tell my children I was here and tell them I was fighting for equality and what’s right.”

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: Students dismayed by DREAM rejection

Note: This is the second in a three-part series examining what student organizations are doing to lobby the 82nd Texas Legislature.

University Leadership Initiative, a UT group that supports the rights of undocumented students, will work this semester to defeat more than 25 bills they say target undocumented immigrants.

The group will join other immigrant activist groups at the Capitol Tuesday to lobby against two specific bills.

ULI will focus on education issues that directly impact undocumented students in Texas. State Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, filed one of the house bills the group will target that could require undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition, and State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, filed the second bill that could require public schools to take a head count of all undocumented students.
The point of the head count bill is to give clarity to how much public education for illegal immigrants is costing the state, said Jon English, Riddle’s chief of staff.

“The cost of illegal immigration is obviously a central focus in the illegal immigration debate, but there are nothing but a bunch of guesses as to how much money, in terms of tax dollars, the state of Texas is spending on services to illegal immigrants,” he said.

English said the bill is not intended to affect the number of undocumented students in public schools, but to record them and make the numbers available.

“We aren’t hoping to deter anybody from attending, but we do want to know how many are showing up,” he said. “The head count will give some transparency to those numbers and I think that would better inform the immigration debate.”

ULI is a group of students, both documented and undocumented, who advocate civil justice and education for the immigrant community, said Daniel Olvera, a ULI spokeswoman and government senior.

“We fight not only for us but for generations of students because their future and our future is in jeopardy,” he said. “All these anti-immigrant laws will just make it harder for our community to live.”
Last semester, the group worked to pass the DREAM Act, a U.S. bill that would have granted citizenship to undocumented students who completed college or joined the military. The bill ultimately failed in the U.S. Senate.

“Even though it didn’t pass, we saw how it empowered our community, to be proud and to fight for our rights, so we felt successful,” Olvera said.

Olvera said according to lawmakers the head count bill seems beneficial because taxpayers will know where their money is being spent, but it will be a burden to the public schools and
undocumented students.

“This unfunded mandate is not logical. It seems like a harmless law but it singles out our community,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a wise law from an economic standpoint or a social standpoint.”

ULI is considering weekly trips to the Capitol, sending out information packets to media outlets and teaming up with other immigrant activist groups across the state.

ULI President Loren Campos said the head count bill could cause undocumented students’ parents to see public schools as an arm of immigration officials and cause them to shy away.

“If this bill passes, a lot of parents are going to perceive schools as immigration enforcement agencies,” he said. “They are going to feel targeted and so this bill would damage the relationship between parents, teachers and students.”

ULI will team with North Texas DREAM Team, Dreamactivist.org, South Texas Immigration Council and more than 20 other immigration rights organizations to continue lobbying throughout the semester.

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Other anti-illegal immigration laws University Leadership will lobby against include:

HB 113 concerning sanctuary cities
HB 16 Relating to requiring a voter to present proof of identification
HB 21 Relating to reporting by state agencies on the financial effect of providing services to illegal immigrants
HB 494 Relating to the eligibility requirements for certain public benefits programs

Eight UT students will join a statewide hunger strike in support of the DREAM Act. Their primary aim for the strike is to urge Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to support the legislation, they said. The DREAM Act would guarantee a pathway to permanent legal residency for undocumented students who came to the U.S. before the age of 16, have no criminal record and spend two years in college or the military. A group of UT-San Antonio students have been on a hunger strike since Nov. 10. “The DREAM Act is not an amnesty bill; it will only benefit those that will contribute back to this country,” said chemistry freshman Adrian Reyna, a member of undocumented student and allies group University Leadership Initiative. “We will strike until we have a response — a response in favor not of us, but in favor of this country.” U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced last week that he would push for the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill in hopes of passing it during the lame-duck session. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., set it to appear before the House on Nov. 29. Although Hutchison has expressed support for the DREAM Act in the past, she said that she will not vote for it in its current form, claiming it is too far-reaching and may benefit those who do not actually graduate from U.S. high schools. The hunger strikes will not affect her position on the legislation, said Hutchison spokeswoman Courtney Sanders. “The senator’s position on the current legislation remains the same, but she has expressed her concern for the safety and welfare of the students who are pursuing the hunger strike,” Sanders said in a statement. “The senator appreciates their passion but strongly believes that they should pursue safer and more constructive methods of promoting their cause.” The UT students who are participating in the hunger strike said they will continue their strike indefinitely until Hutchison agrees to support the legislation or until the U.S. Senate takes a vote. “We feel like we have done pretty much everything else — letter writing, phone banking, rallies, press conferences,” said civil engineering senior Loren Campos, ULI president and an undocumented student. “We hope the hunger strike will create the urgency necessary to let Hutchison know that there is a support base of Texans here and across the state that want her to vote for the DREAM Act as it is.”

Six students repeated a simple message: “I am undocumented, and I am unafraid.” Their voices rose above the hurried shuffle of the West Mall on Tuesday morning as they shared their stories of coming to the U.S. and to UT.

Despite the danger of possible deportation, these students said it was time to speak on behalf of themselves and their communities. An estimated 200 undocumented students attend UT, according to the Office of Admissions, and 65,000 undocumented students graduate each year from U.S. high schools, according to research group The Urban Institute.

In their speeches, the students urged U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to put the DREAM Act on the Senate’s agenda before the new Congress takes office, and they want it to pass.

The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act would provide conditional permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented minors who have lived in the United States since at least age 15, and who either attend college or join the armed services for at least two years. The earliest version of the legislation appeared before Congress in 2001 and despite consistent bipartisan support, it has never passed into law.

“I remember driving up [Interstate Highway 35] with my mom, and the first thing that caught my attention was the UT Tower,” said Daniel Olvera, a government and education senior and historian of undocumented student and allies group University Leadership Initiative. “From that day forward, I made a pact with myself that I would obtain an education at this University. I made it, I’m in college and about to finish. Now, the struggle is stronger than ever. We will not be able to give back to the country that we love with the skills and talents we gain here through our hard work.”

Five other ULI members from Mexico, Guatemala and Nepal declared their undocumented status, offering their own experience as a testament to the necessity of the DREAM Act. Edilsa Lopez, a business and international relations junior and ULI vice president, shed tears as she described her experience being kidnapped twice and finally brought to Brownsville at age 13, where she escaped her captor and sought help from family members and strangers.

Lopez now works in odd jobs and as a designer to put herself through school and support her three orphaned younger siblings, two who are still in Guatemala and one who is living in Houston.

“I still have one more year to graduate, and I recently was nominated for the Presidential Leadership Award at UT,” Lopez said. “I have to support my siblings financially because I am the only support they have, and I have to support myself and maintain myself in school so I can succeed. There are many who call me a criminal because I am undocumented, but I didn’t have the choice to come here.”

These students are not in serious threat of deportation, as immigration officials have shown little interest in targeting individuals without ties to major crime, said sociology professor Nestor Rodriguez, who specializes in migrant and immigration research and policy. However, their cries for the DREAM Act’s passage may fall on deaf ears as Republicans approach legislation with new energy after success in the Nov. 2 elections, and prospects for the 2011-12 congress are even bleaker for DREAM Act supporters, Rodriguez said.

“The group that got increased presence and power are the Republicans, including the minority of tea party people,” Rodriguez said. “These are not the sources for more inclusion of immigrants and amnesty or legalization. For these undocumented students, that means a larger wall.”

Reid campaigned for re-election on a promise to put the DREAM Act up for a vote during the lame duck session, but his office reported that although he hopes to pass it before January, they are uncertain of being able to gain the necessary Republican support.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she would not vote for the current version of the DREAM Act, although she does support expanded educational options for undocumented students.

“The DREAM Act now being discussed in the Senate needs to have more input in order to determine a fair process, and I would not support the bill as it is,” Hutchison said. “I previously worked on an alternative that would allow young people who have gone through school in the United States and want to pursue a college education to get a student visa.”

However, ULI members said the fight for the DREAM Act will not end until the law passes. State legislators have added more than 15 immigration-related bills to the spring docket since Monday, when it became possible to do so. Many came from state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, including two that mirror aspects of the controversial Arizona bill SB 1070. With this in mind, ULI students said they will keep fighting for representation and rights as the Americans they believe they are.

“I’m very much like everybody at this University, except for a nine-digit number,” said Him Ranjit, biomedical engineering and government sophomore and ULI treasurer who came from Nepal with his family at age 10. “The opposition doesn’t want us to achieve our full potential, but we are fighting for our lives, and we won’t stop until we win.”