Adrian Reyna

Daniel Olvera, President of the University Leadership Initiative (UIL) student organization, speaks to a group of students at a panel meeting addressing the DREAM Act and controversial issues in the immigration system.

Photo Credit: Maria Arrellaga | Daily Texan Staff

The future of 600 undocumented students at UT remains in the hands of the national political system despite efforts to lobby for their naturalization by those who will be affected by any type of immigration reform.

Members of the University Leadership Initiative discussed the shift in political perspective of immigration and the progress that has been made towards successful reform through laws like the DREAM Act during a panel sponsored by Senior Fellows, the College of Communication’s honors program.

University Leadership Initiative, a student organization made up primarily of undocumented students, works to push for political support of a law that would put them on the road to becoming citizens.

House Bill 1403, the law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition in Texas, passed April 2001 with only two votes against it. Daniel Olvera, government senior and president of the ULI, said the passing of the bill was a step forward for immigrants, but social regard for immigration has changed for the worse since 9/11.

Olvera said he crossed the border from Mexico into what he now calls his country when he was 11 years old.

“The current political system has impacted undocumented students’ ability to pursue higher education,” he said. “We want to foster equality, and the solution is comprehensive immigration reform.”

The struggle for a good education begins after high school graduation for most undocumented students, said government junior Adrian Reyna.

Before coming to UT, Reyna applied to MIT and was waitlisted until he could prove he had the financial ability to pay for tuition at an international rate, he said. He was eventually denied the chance to attend.

“It’s important to shine a light on the narrative end of this struggle,” he said. “We hope our stories motivate others to make a difference — not just for the 600 undocumented students at UT or the 1600 students in Texas, but for the millions of individuals in the same situation.”

The immigration system is broken when 2.2 million individuals brought here as children are charged with breaking a law, said Ainee Athar, international relations senior.

Athar moved from Pakistan to the United States when she was two. Her parents were detained after a lawyer made a mistake in their asylum form.

“We need to introduce comprehensive immigration reform, but we know it will take the same political capital that it took to pass health care reform,” she said.

Athar said the Obama administration has been supportive of the struggles of undocumented immigrants, but the impending election is a serious concern to ULI. She said politicians are supporting “self-deportation” as a means for getting undocumented immigrants out of the country, claiming that if they make staying here difficult enough they will simply leave.

“When the word ‘self-deportation’ is thrown around by presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, the idea of denying basic rights to individuals becomes terrifying,” she said.

Students are shocked by the quickly rising cost of tuition, said government junior Adrian Reyna.

On Monday, the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee proposed the largest tuition increase allowed over the next two academic years. If the TPAC proposal is implemented by the UT System Board of Regents, in-state undergraduate tuition could increase 2.6 percent each year, meaning $127 more per semester in 2012-13 and $131 more each semester in 2013-14 for full-time students. In addition, out-of-state undergraduate and graduate tuition rates would increase by 3.6 percent each year, meaning $550 more per semester in 2012-13 and $650 per semester in 2013-14 for full-time students.

This increase in tuition runs counter to the University’s objective to increase four-year graduation rates, stated as a primary objective in President William Powers Jr.’s address to the University earlier this year, Reyna said.

“Many of my friends couldn’t come back because they couldn’t pay their loans or get enough scholarships,” Reyna said. “It’s very sad to see adequate students who could have graduated leave for money reasons.”

Students have left and returned to the University only after becoming able to pay for tuition, such as linguistics junior Ian Merritt, a Louisiana native who took a year off to establish residency and work full-time.

In the past he supplemented his work income with loans to pay for his tuition, but said that problems in the Legislature and recent cuts from the state have forced him to now rely mostly on his own means.

“Back in June, FAFSA told me I’d qualify for a lot of loans, but a month or so later I got a notice that Congress was undecided about the funding, and all of a sudden those loans that were in the thousands became zeros,” Merritt said.

Many undergraduates have done the opposite of extending their time at UT and have tried to graduate in less than the recommended four years in order to avoid massive debt after graduation, said supply chain management junior Omar Ghani.

“I’m not going to take $6-7000 in debt to stay here another semester,” Ghani said. “If people take on more debt to graduate and not think about the long-term effects, it’s going to bite them later.”

Some students have decided to delay attending UT due to the rising cost of tuition.

International anthropology senior Daniel Machado attended Austin Community College for his first two years of college and only recently transferred since ACC’s tuition was lower.

“The tuition increase is going to impact who comes here,” Machado said. “It’s going to give UT a new face. Number one, you’ll probably see a lot less freshman. Why pay when you can just transfer in?”

Graduate students have been affected in other ways due to the loss of funding from the state, said American studies graduate student Emily Roehl.

“It’s fairly common to see people take on complementary or seasonal jobs, I was working four last summer,” Roehl said. “There’s only a few grants, and people just end up taking on more loans, and because money is so tight right now in the humanities I think that’s made the field really competitive.”

Ultimately, there are other ways to improve education at UT and hiking tuition is not the best option, said American studies senior Nick De La Cruz.

“Texas has problems creating an educated workforce,” De La Cruz said. “It’s not going to be a winning strategy to increase tuition while cutting funding for students.”

Printed on Wednesday, November 30, 2011 as: Cost of college forces some students out of University

82nd Legislature

Undocumented UT students joined hundreds of other Texans to testify about proposed immigration bills before the Texas House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Adrian Reyna, a member of undocumented students and allies group University Leadership Initiative, said a bill from Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, would potentially hurt undocumented UT students’ ability to pay for higher education. One part of the bill repeals access to in-state tuition for undocumented students, but Reyna said this comes from a misconception that he and other undocumented students are a drain on state finances. “We’re nothing but a benefit to the state,” said Reyna, whose family immigrated illegally to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 11. Reyna cited the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which said for fiscal year 2009, undocumented students paid $9.5 million out-of-pocket for tuition. That money came from families and went directly to the economy, he said. Equal Justice Center director Bill Beardall said several of these bills would make wage theft worse. “It will encourage unscrupulous employers to hire more undocumented workers in order to exploit them,” he said. One bill from Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, would prohibit cities from creating policies that prevent police from verifying immigration status during stops or arrests. Beardall said Solomon’s bill would lower wages and reduce job opportunities for U.S. citizen workers and puts legitimate employers at a disadvantage. He said undocumented workers will be too afraid to turn unscrupulous employers in to the authorities because of these bills. However, some of the testimony at the public hearing was in support of the 16 immigration bills discussed. Houston resident Sue Salter testified before the committee about her husband, former Houston police officer Rick Salter, who was shot in the face by an illegal immigrant last year. Rick was in a coma for 30 days and cannot speak clearly anymore. She said she wants legislators to remember her family’s tragedy. “What happens to innocent Americans who have to deal with the consequences of illegal immigration for the rest of our lives?” Salter said. This article has been changed to reflect the following retraction: An earlier version of this article included a quote from an undocumented student who requested his information be removed for safety reasons.

Editor’s Note: Portions of the interviews were translated from Spanish to English.

Chemistry freshman Adrian Reyna and his family filed for citizenship before they came to the United States from Monterrey, Mexico, more than 10 years ago. Reyna, now 20 years old, still has not been approved.

He and other members of UT’s University Leadership Initiative — an organization of undocumented students and allies ¬— staged a walkout today and made their way to the state Capitol. The organization joined nearly 3,000 people from all over Texas to rally for inclusive immigration and community security reform at the Capitol on Tuesday.

“We believe that the voting capacity of Texas has grown,” Reyna said. “The Hispanic population has grown, and we can eventually get [legislators who do not pass comprehensive immigration reform] out of session.”

Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance organized the “Texas Can Do Better” demonstration in response to more than 60 bills regarding immigration policy in spite of the estimated $15 billion to $27 billion budget shortfall.

Proposed legislation includes withholding birth certificates from children born to undocumented parents, requiring public schools to verify students’ citizenship status and mandating law enforcement officials to verify the citizenship status of all arrested persons.

Adriana Cadena, the alliance’s coordinator, said the legislation that resembles the Arizona immigration-reform law could lead to racial profiling and break the trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities.

Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said the bill could discourage immigrants from reporting crimes. America’s immigration system is broken and does not recognize the contributions immigrants make to Texas and to the nation, he said.

“You got a legal immigration system that takes up to 20 years for people to adjust their status and bring family members in the legal route,” Rodriguez said. “The budget deficit shouldn’t be balanced on the backs of working people, of immigrants that are here wanting to benefit their own and their families’ lives.”

He said the federal government, not the state governments, should be responsible for creating comprehensive immigration reform.

Ramona Casas — a member of A Resource in Serving Equality, which helps immigrants become members of society with community programs and classes — came with over 400 families from the Rio Grande Valley to voice the harm current immigration policies have on border cities and families.

“This affects us because we do a lot of interaction with Mexico and these reforms would affect our economy,” Casas said. “We want them to understand what we believe in as immigrant families, as Tejanos.”

Casas said the organization delivered more than 20,000 signed letters from border families to the Texas Legislature last year.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks, said the bill he authored would not prevent law officials from carrying out their duties and was not influenced by the Arizona immigration law.

“All 254 counties in Texas are checking the immigration status of every person incarcerated, but it’s voluntary by county,” Geren said. “If I can get rid of someone that’s breaking the law, I’m going to get rid of someone that’s breaking the law.”

Reyna said he agreed Texas should not house criminals.

“But I am not a criminal, and I am willing to give back in every way,” he said.