U.S. Congress

The financial aid landscape is changing drastically as the U.S. Congress and Texas Legislature respond to calls for major cuts to government programs. Student Financial Services Director Tom Melecki addressed questions about the UT financial aid awards for the 2011-12 school year. The Daily Texan: What changes are affecting financial aid for 2011? Thomas Melecki: There are 12 federal and state programs that so far this year have provided over $100 million to UT students, and there is an estimated $36 million that could be lost. We either already know that those programs are going away or consider seven of those programs to be at risk, meaning that either Congress or the state Leg. may cut funding to those programs. Because of the way those programs are structured, the loss would fall more heavily on freshmen; we could have 71-percent less money for new freshman if we’re not careful. DT: What federal programs are at risk? TM: The Federal Pell Grant Program and supplemental grant program could be affected. The largest grant program used by UT students, the Pell Grant Program, provided $48 million to UT students and could be facing a reduction up to $13 million. DT: What state programs are at risk? TM: Under the budget bills that are currently pending in the Legislature, every one of the Texas financial aid programs is subject to a significant reduction in the amount of money the state would appropriate to it. Those include the Top-10 Percent Scholarship, the TEXAS Grant program, the B-On-Time Loan program and the Texas Work-Study program. DT: What about new students? TM: We’re hoping to begin sending packages out for new students in the next few days because new students need to make enrollment commitments by May 1. The University Budget Council has authorized us to use some university funds to offer to new students in place of the state aid that we cannot offer them. It’s only a limited amount of funding, but it does help cushion the blow for new students. DT: What is the time frame for offers? TM: Since the legislative session ends May 30 and the governor has until June 19 to issue line item vetoes, it could be as late as June 20-21 until the Coordinating Board can tell us what we have in terms of financial aid for this coming year. We hope to make the aid offers no later than July 1. DT: Has the University encountered this before? TM: This is the largest cut that any of us can remember, and it’s also the most uncertainty that we’ve had to deal with at this point in time. Typically, we’re already getting aid packages out for summer, fall and spring to both new and continuing students. It’s important for currently enrolled students to understand that we’ll have aid for them; the question is what type of aid will we have. We don’t want someone to make plans for summer or fall/spring based on the notion that they get some type of grant and then have to go back and take the grant away from them and offer a loan in its place.

A federal program, recently implemented in all Texas counties, that scans local jails for undocumented immigrants with criminal records has spurred controversy because it might lead to racial profiling and underreporting of crime.

The program, known as Secure Communities, aims to find and deport undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes such as homicide and rape. When an individual is arrested and taken to a local jail, he or she must provide fingerprints that will run in a multi-agency database and be verified with FBI criminal history records.

Texas became the first border state to implement Secure Communities in all counties in September, with Travis County joining in June 2009. Harris County was the first in the nation to enact the program.

Gregory Palmore, ICE – Houston Field Office spokesman, said the U.S. Congress mandated the adoption of the program to all counties throughout the nation by 2013.

“We’re all on track, and there are no setbacks to implement it,” he said. “It will expand local law enforcement capabilities through the use of technology. There’s really nothing else required.”

Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the program could stifle undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes because of fears of deportation.

“It has an adverse effect on law enforcement because it discourages victims from reporting crime,” Harrington said. “If they don’t report crimes, they’re pretty prone to being victims again.”

The San Antonio federal immigration district, which includes Travis County, accounted for 14 percent of the nation’s total deportations in 2010. The district has outnumbered the other three Texas districts since it began in 2008 and has consistently deported more immigrants for non-criminal reasons than for convicted crimes.

UT sociology professor Nestor Rodriguez said it was hard to believe that Travis County has such a high deportation rate.

“Travis County has a relatively small immigrant population,” he said. “The largest numbers of deportations in a county would come from counties that have very high numbers of immigrants, and Travis County only has 188,075.”

Rodriguez said enforcement-approach policies such as Secure Communities result from the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass a comprehensive immigration bill.

“In the absence of such a bill, the trust of immigration policy becomes more dependent on enforcement, especially as the number of migrants entering the country without visas increases,” he said.

Esther Reyes, coordinator of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, said Secure Communities does not carry out the original mission of removing immigrants with serious convictions. In 2009, there were about 128,000 undocumented immigrants removed mostly for drug charges and traffic violations, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s website.

“Law enforcement officials are supposed to fight crime and provide safety to our communities,” Reyes said. “There’s a disconnect between the mission of this and how it’s being implemented.”

Denise Gilman, co-director of the School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, said the number of calls to the clinic usually increases when the government increases immigration enforcement, such as through the Secure Communities program. However, the clinic cannot represent them all because of limited resources.

“Fortunately while there is always a lot of anti-immigrant legislation, our leadership has mostly recognized that there are strong bonds between Texas and Mexico and that there are many generations of immigrants who we want to continue to welcome and work with,” Gilman said.