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Julieta Paredes, a youth and community organizer with La Unión del Pueblo Entero, speaks to immigrant families at the DREAM University symposium hosted by UTPA Minority Affairs Council in Rio Grande City.

RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – On a visit to the UT-Pan American Starr County Campus last October, UT-Rio Grande Valley President Guy Bailey was urged to provide more degree programs at the campus.

At present, the only course being offered is a degree in bilingual teaching. This course is important, Starr County economic development leaders Rose Benavidez and Sam Vale told Bailey, but more higher education programs are needed to boost the economic vibrancy and educational standards of the county.

Former Rio Grande Valley Mayor Ruben Villarreal has issued a similar message. “I hope UT-RGV does not forget about us. We are part of the Valley, too,” Villarreal told the Rio Grande Guardian, in an interview last year.

On Saturday, at a DREAM University symposium at the UTPA Starr County Campus, another reason emerged for increasing academic programs in Starr County.

“We need more higher education programs in Starr County because too many of our students are afraid to travel to UT-Pan American in Edinburg,” said Eric Aguilar, community organizer for the Minority Affairs Council (MAC) at UT-Pan American. “The reason they are afraid is because of the increased militarization, by DPS and Border Patrol, in Starr County and the western part of Hidalgo County. Many of our students cannot get a driver’s license and fear being pulled over.”

MAC put on the all-day symposium. The group holds such an event every year, usually at UTPA in Edinburg. Organizers said they chose to host this year’s event in Starr County in order to provide information to a somewhat isolated community. Experts were on hand from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Mexican Consulate’s Office in McAllen, UTPA, the South Texas Civil Rights Project, La Unión del Pueblo Entero, and MAC, to answer questions from immigrant families.

“We realize there is a great distance between Rio Grande City and Roma from the rest of the Rio Grande Valley and in that distance we find most of the militarization, from our DPS and Border Patrol. A lot of the people who live in our community are isolated from the services provided by certain agencies in the Rio Grande Valley, and from community groups such as La Unión del Pueblo Entero, ARISE, the South Texas Civil Rights Project,” Aguilar said, in an in-depth interview with the Rio Grande Guardian.

“So, we decided to have the event here and outreached to most high schools and community centers because we know a lot of students here might qualify for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). We know many students here would qualify because there were childhood arrivals. But, we also know many have not applied simply because there are too few attorneys in the area and some of the ones that are here charge quite a large fee. So, we are trying to provide services here at a lower cost.”

Aguilar said he knows all about the increased militarization of the western end of the Rio Grande Valley because he is from there. He came to the United States from Mexico when he was four and was raised in La Casita, a small community on the outskirts of Rio Grande City. He went to school in Rio Grande City. Aguilar said the presence of law enforcement has increased greatly since he was at school. He is 29 years old now.

“You get used to seeing Border Patrol and DPS agents regularly. You get used to getting pulled over regularly for no real reason. You know it is a routine check and they are trying to inquire (as to your legal status). It is the atmosphere you live in and you learn to grow with it but at the same time it does keep our community somewhat oppressed and our businesses are suffering for the same reason,” Aguilar said.

“People are afraid to go out and drive because there are so many DPS officers. Education is affected because some of our students do not want to travel to Pan Am because the fear. So, they end up going to the local community college, (South Texas College) which is great, but many would like to go to UTPA but cannot take the risk.”

Aguilar said South Texas College deserves great credit to establishing the JAG Express bus service, which transports students, faculty and staff from its Starr County campus to its other campuses in McAllen and Weslaco. If students are on the bus they are less likely to be pulled over than if they are in their own or a friend’s car, Aguilar pointed out.

Aguilar said he hears about the fears of Rio Grande City students and families travelling to places like McAllen and Edinburg not only from students themselves but also from high school counselors and administrators.

“They voice the same concerns as the students. They tell me the fear of driving does limit the career goals of some of the students that live in the area. Fortunately, we do have administrators who are very much supportive. For example, the JAG Express, the bus service provided by STC. It is really effective,” Aguilar said.

“When we were organizing this event we reached out to the STC Starr County Campus administrator, Dr. Arturo Montiel. He was very helpful. We also reached out to STC board member Rose Benavidez and she was very helpful. All the leaders in Starr County are very helpful. They are doing everything they can to offer these students more opportunities.”

Asked if he knew what percentage of the Starr County population is undocumented, Aguilar said: “No we do not have data on how many are here. I grew up here and I know a lot of my friends were undocumented, those in the soccer team. This was back in 2004. Now, when I reach out to Roma ISD, and Rio Grande City ISD, they tell me they have a good amount of students that are also considered State ID students or students that are undocumented. So, there are a lot of (undocumented) people here and there is a great need for information. It is just a matter of getting the information out there effectively.”

Aguilar then elaborated on his experiences growing up in Starr County. He was four years of age when he arrived in the United States from Mexico. His parents overstayed their tourist visa and settled in the U.S. He has three siblings that are U.S. citizens. Aguilar was asked what it was like driving around Starr County without a driver’s license. He said he only got his license when he was 27, thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“Coming from Rio Grande City, I had the same fear people have now of driving without a license. When I applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, I had to pay for about $2,000 worth of driver’s license tickets. Because I had no driver’s license I accumulated tickets. I paid them as much as I could but every traffic stop becomes a no driver’s license violation, which can get very costly, especially for college students.

“Fortunately, I was educated in the Texas public education system and I was able to respond (to being pulled over) in a manner in English and I was prepared and educated accurately. Unfortunately, not everyone is as well-informed. DPS could have called Border Patrol and I could have been deported, even though I have lived in the United States since I was four-years old.

“That fear is very much there, all the time. It is really felt by students who are just graduating from high school and have college offers from places like Austin and Kingsville. They have to refuse those offers, even though they are academically qualified and they deserve these scholarships because they cannot get past the checkpoints. They end up going to local colleges, which are great, but they do have to give up on certain out of town scholarships because they cannot travel out of town. That was my case. I got a scholarship to Missouri and I had to really rethink my situation. It does affect you.”

“Often times, people are pulled over and they have certain rights that they may not know about. Here, they can get training on how to respond to a police officer, what rights they have and how they can go about their day without putting themselves in jeopardy of deportation,” Aguilar said.

Asked if the presence of staff members from USCIS, may have dampened turnout, Aguilar said: “It has definitely affected attendance. A lot of people that we approached to come to this event had that same question. They were wondering if they would be detained if they came forward to ask questions to this agency. We tried to assured them that the answer was “no,” that this was event where you can ask questions without fear. But, there is still a lot of fear in the community, that they might get arrested here as well because we brought in a federal agency. It all ties in with the fear people have because of our current immigration laws.”

Aguilar said the DREAM University symposium was timely because of federal Judge Andrew Hanen’s ruling that, temporarily at least, halted DACA and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parental Responsibility, and because of legislation being considered by the Legislature in Austin that would overturn the law that allows undocumented immigrants to go to public universities and colleges at instate tuition rates.

On the Hanen ruling, Aguilar said: “A lot of our community is confused about what is happening with that executive action. We are trying to help them understand where things are at. We are making them aware of the fraudulent immigration assistance providers, those that are willing to take their money when the executive order has not even been enacted yet. This is one of the main reasons we are having this event, to keep the community informed so that they know what to expect and to prepare themselves in case, hopefully soon, this executive order is enacted. We have a lot of parents in Starr County that may qualify for DAPA because they have citizen children. This will definitely help not only the parents but the children themselves, their whole environment in the house. If they can drive to work safely, if they can drop off their kids at school safely, it just provides a better learning atmosphere for their children. It overall helps our education system as well.”

Asked what MAC is telling parents to do about DACA, Aguilar said: “We are advising them to get ready, to get all the documents together that they are going to need. Also, we are telling them to start saving up for the payments because it is hard to get hold of the money sometimes, especially if you are head of the household and providing for a family. That is why we have the Mexican Consulate’s staff member here. So he can advise them on what they need. We want them to get prepared because we are sure DAPA and extended DACA will happen. They (the states who brought the lawsuit opposing the executive order) can only stretch things out so long. The evidence shows that DACA and DAPA will greatly help the state of Texas and we are just waiting for it to happen. We want the community prepared.”

As for the instate tuition issue, Aguilar said MAC had some of its members at the state Capitol in Austin last week to testify against repeal of the current law.

“There is so much data from 2001 onwards, when Texas’ version of the DREAM Act became law, that DREAMers have been paying millions of dollars into tuition. There is a great deal of evidence on how much they contribute to our economy. We pay taxes at the pump, we pay taxes at in the stores, we pay property taxes, utilities, so we are, pretty much, contributing to our economy and we have been for so long,” Aguilar said.

“Some legislators argue that we are taking slots away from citizens but there is no evidence of that. The author of the legislation to repeal the law (state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels) was asked how many universities have reached out to her requesting that she author and pass a bill to repeal the Texas DREAM Act. Her answer was none.”

Aguilar earned a degree in rehabilitative services at UTPA. He said he would not have been able to pursue higher education if he had been required to pay out-of-state tuition rates. “DREAMers can and are contributing to the well-being of the State of Texas and continue to make Texas the competitive state that it is.”

Aguilar said he was particularly pleased that Maria Cordero, a community organizer with the ACLU of Texas, was able to give a presentation at the DREAM University symposium. Her power point presentation, all in Spanish, was called “Conozca sus Derechos” (Know your Rights) and she asked members of the audience to come up to the front to role play situations where an immigrant might get pulled over in their vehicle or might get a knock on the door at home by law enforcement.