Nestor Rodriguez

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.”

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.