Daniel Olvera

Students chant in front of Littlefield fountain Friday afternoon in celebration of President Obama’s executive order to halt the deportation of young immigrants and allow those who met certain criteria to apply for work permits.

Photo Credit: Zen Ren | Daily Texan Staff

On Thursday, UT graduate Daniel Olvera would not have been able to apply for a high school job teaching social studies because of his undocumented status. Today, it is a different story.

President Barack Obama made an executive order Friday morning halting the deportation of young immigrants if they came to the U.S. before the age of 16 and lack a criminal history. The executive order also allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a two-year work permit if they meet the above requirements and are under the age of 30.

“This is relief; it is something that will grant release to nearly one million students who are undocumented right now,” Olvera said.

“Dreamers,” a term people who support the DREAM Act use to describe themselves, and members of University Leadership Initiative gathered in front of the Littlefield fountain Friday, chanting, shouting and holding up signs in celebration and support of Obama’s recent executive order. The University Leadership Initiative is a UT organization that advocates for the DREAM Act, a bill that would give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. At the celebration, many members said while they are happy for the executive order, they will continue to push for the DREAM Act.

Obama has supported the DREAM Act since he was a senator. In December 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act but failed to pass 60 votes in the Senate.

In a statement Friday, Obama said his action was targeted to young people who study in U.S. schools. The president said his executive order would go into effect immediately but was not a pathway to citizenship.

“This is not amnesty, this is not immunity,” Obama said. “This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry released a statement after Obama’s announcement calling the move an “election-year tactic.”

“The laws of this nation are not open to selective, convenient or political interpretation; they are the very foundation of our freedom, and the protections they guarantee make our nation strong and attractive to immigrants around the world — millions of whom abide by our laws and processes and seek legal entry,” Perry said in his statement. “These are decisions that should be thoroughly debated within the halls of Congress.

But Olvera said Obama’s action was not a political move but something he did because it was the right thing to do.

“This is something that happened because of the push and because of the activism of the youth movement nationwide,” Olvera said. “And we managed to make sure President Obama granted us relief before the re-election. If this was a political move, he would have promised to do it after the election, but he did it beforehand.”

Spanish senior Jonathan Hernandez, who is also undocumented, said the University Leadership Initiative will continue to support and push for the DREAM Act.

“This is only the first step,” Hernandez said. “Obama did give us permission to work and he did stop the deportations, but like he said, this is not a pathway to citizenship, which is what we want in the end.”

Hernandez said Dreamers will take advantage of this executive order and prove they can contribute to the country. He said the president’s action was especially important to immigrants who have already graduated.

“They will be able to practice their careers; they will be able to practice what they spent so much time studying here at UT,” Hernandez said. “It’s amazing for all of us. Not just though for us at UT but for future generations who are going to come.”

Alfredo Galvan, a undocumented high school senior, said he was glad Obama took action in support of the Dreamers.

“I can finally get a job. I can graduate from college and not hit a brick wall,” Galvan said. “I can put my degree to work.

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.

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

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.”