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MCALLEN, RGV – Whatever ruling the U.S. Supreme Court makes on President Obama’s executive orders on immigration, the Rio Grande Valley will be heavily impacted.

This is the view of Heide Castañeda, PhD, MPH, associate professor and graduate director in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida.

Heide Castañeda
Heide Castañeda

Since 2012, Castañeda and her students have been studying the impact of Obama’s executive orders as they relate to mixed status families in the Valley. These are families that have some members who are citizens or legal residents and others who are undocumented.

“As someone who has ties with and is often in the Valley, yet looking in from afar, I am thinking of the massive implications the Supreme Court ruling will have on the Rio Grande Valley,” Castañeda told the Rio Grande Guardian, in a phone interview on Monday, the day the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case United States v. Texas.

“People talk about the impact DACA and DAPA will have on California. But it is going to have a big impact on the Valley.”

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The Obama Administration introduced this executive order to allow young, undocumented, immigrants to stay and work in the United States. President Obama would like to expand the program but has so far been thwarted in federal court. DAPA stands for Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). This allows the undocumented parents of U.S. born children to work legally in the United States. Like extended DACA, DAPA is under review by the Supreme Court.

Asked what impact the initial DACA program had on the Valley, Castañeda said: “The previous DACA has had a tremendous impact on young adults in the Valley. Many of the people we talked with have DACA, they have deferred action status from 2012. We have seen how it has transformed their lives. It has allowed them to go to college, it has given them ability to go to work, to drive.

“It has had a positive impact on the economy, on public safety, on healthcare, on so many aspects of life in the Valley, in areas where the Valley needs to improve. All of the successes we have seen from the prior deferred action program would be multiplied by the current initiative, going forward. It has had a very positive impact on families in the Valley.”

Fifty-Seven Percent

Asked if she knew how many Valley families might be impacted by the Supreme Court’s ruling, Castañeda said: “Under a previous grant proposal I wrote, I referenced the fact that in Hidalgo County, 57 percent of children – most of whom are U.S. citizens – live with at least one immigrant parent. That is vastly greater than other parts of Texas and other parts of the nation. So, we can say that about half the children in Hidalgo County are going to feel some impact on their family.”

Asked where the 57 percent statistic came from, Castañeda said it came from a 2012 book authored by former UT-Pan American professor, Chad Richardson, and Michael J. Pisani titled ‘The Informal and Underground Economy of the South Texas Border.’

“Working in La Joya school district and working in other school districts in the Valley, and talking to parents and teachers, this is a major issue for the Rio Grande Valley,” Castañeda said.

Asked about her research, Castañeda said: “I and my students have been researching this topic in the Rio Grande Valley since 2012, and currently have a multi-year project funded by the National Science Foundation that examines the potential impacts of these initiatives (should they move forward or not) on families and communities. Specifically, we are looking at the experiences of mixed-status families, in which the uncertain legal status of some members, influences opportunities and resources for all, including permanent residents and US citizens.”

Castañeda acknowledged that expanded DACA and DAPA are potentially only a temporary fix.

“DAPA and expanded DACA are only temporary forms of relief in an immigration system that needs larger reforms. In fact, I would not even call it a step in the right direction because it is something that is completely outside of what is needed. This is a temporary fix. It is time-limited, there is certain eligibility criteria, it is not a sustainable solution,” Castañeda said.

“However, DAPA and expanded DACA do offer a lot of opportunities in the short term. This time next year there could be a very different president who decides to implement very different executive action. Nonetheless, the effects of these two initiatives will be noticeably positive for individuals, families, and communities and will result in improvements in economic conditions, health, and educational opportunities.”

Told that the RGV Equal Voice Network, including community groups like ARISE and La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), held a rally outside the federal courthouse in McAllen on Monday in support of President Obama’s executive orders on immigration, Castañeda said she would have been with them if she could.

“It’s very important to me that my research aligns with the concerns of the local community, so working with local community groups has been key. I have been learning about the hopes and dreams and aspirations of immigrant families. Aspirations that would increase if these executive actions are allowed to move forward.”

RGV Equal Voice Network rally

At the RGV Equal Voice, Martha Sanchez, a community organizer for LUPE, acknowledged that DAPA and expanded DACA are, at best, a temporary fix.

“We know it is a temporary fix, but our families need something to hold on to. When our new president is sworn in we are going to press for immigration reform. We need the ability to cross the checkpoint. We have families who are sick. They are cannot take their children to get the medical care they need because they cannot cross the checkpoint. They are stuck here. The children are citizens but they cannot cross the checkpoints. We have cases where a spouse is working in another part of the country and the rest of the family cannot visit him. We need America to reinstate its long cherished family values,” Sanchez said.

Asked how many people in the Valley would benefit from Obama’s executive orders, should the Supreme Court rule in the Administration’s favor, Sanchez said: “We really do not know because so many of our people live in the shadows. They are afraid to be counted. If it happens, a lot of people will come out and apply, it could be 100,000.”

Like Castañeda, Sanchez said the Valley and Texas would benefit from DAPA and expanded DACA.

“We saw the benefit with the original DACA. We have all these young people helping grow the Valley economy and the Texas economy and the U.S. economy. They are holding down two or three jobs. We know it will be beneficial for our country and our state. This country needs DAPA, this region needs DAPA, it is good for the economy.”

Editor’s Note: The slideshow of images accompanying this story show a rally held outside the federal courthouse in McAllen by the RGV Equal Voice Network in support of President Obama’s executive orders on immigration. The rally was held on Monday, April 18, 2016.