SAN JUAN, RGV – It has been a good week and a bad week for La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a community group that helps colonia and low-income families in Hidalgo County.
The bad news came when an appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling that blocks an immigration program introduced by President Obama that shields hundreds of thousands of undocumented Texans and millions of Americans from deportation. LUPE strongly supported the program.
The good news was that Hidalgo County Commissioners Court approved a new policy for installing street lights in unincorporated áreas. Getting street lights into colonias has been a top issue for LUPE for the past decade.
Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of La Union del Pueblo Entero, issued this statement about the immigration ruling:
“We are outraged by the court’s decision, but the decision only strengthens our resolve as a community to continue our fight for justice for immigrant families. We are disappointed at the court’s willingness to deny the respect and dignity of immigrants, but we are confident that these policies are on solid legal ground. Thankfully, the Obama administration has already announced that it will appeal this decision to the Supreme Court, where we hope that justice will prevail.
“We must remember that our movement won Deferred Action for DREAMers in 2012 and we won again when the President announced the Deferred Action for Parents and Expanded DACA programs in November of last year. We won in 2012 and again in 2014 because our nation is a nation with a rich cultural diversity and heritage that prides itself on welcoming the stranger. We won because our immigrant brothers and sisters have stood up for their own dignity and shared their stories with the nation, touching the hearts of countless Americans. We won because as a nation, we care about practical solutions to a problem that separates families and divides communities.
“Despite this ruling, we will continue winning. We will continue inching our way toward an immigration system that upholds the dignity of all. We will win because the Deferred Action programs are practical and in line with our values as a nation. We will win because the alternative—the deportation of 11 million immigrant Americans—violates our values as a nation and is as unworkable as it is inhumane. What would be the impact on the forest of uprooting 11 million trees? We cannot uproot 11 million mothers, fathers, workers, business owners from our families and communities without devastating them and devastating our very definition of what it means to be an American.
“Our eventual victory will not come easy. No great victory has ever been won without great sacrifice. We will register. We will vote. We will organize, speak up, and stand up for our communities and core values under siege. We will make our voices heard at the ballot box in March 2016 and then again in November. We won’t forget then what is being said now. And we will do it all while holding in our hearts a deep commitment to respect and dignity for every human being.
“We call on all those who believe in an America of opportunity, where all are created equal, to join our movement. Already, over one thousand Valley residents have signed our petition to Texas Governor Greg Abbott in support of the programs. Over three hundred RGV businesses have joined LUPE and our partners in the Equal Voice Network and signed letters to the governor in support of the programs. Already, Dallas, Travis, El Paso, Hidalgo and Cameron counties have passed resolutions calling for the implementation of the programs.
“Wherever you are and whoever you are with, you can join our movement and make a difference. Register to vote; collect signatures from businesses in your area; sign and share petition; ask your city and county leaders to pass a resolution in support of immigrant families. Use your voice to call on our political leaders at every level to support practical solutions to our immigration system that allow new Americans to contribute to our country and economy to their fullest potential.”
Long struggle for street lights in colonias
Regarding street lights in unincorporated areas, Section 280.003 of the Texas Transportation Code states that the court of a county that has any of its territory located within 150 miles of an international border may establish street lights along a county road in a subdivision located in an unincorporated area.
Under legislation passed in 2007 by then state-Rep. Veronica Gonzales of McAllen, Hidalgo County already had the authority to install streetlights along county roads, and to collect a fee from neighborhood residents who benefit from those streetlights to pay for the electricity the lights use. House Bill 3002, passed this year by state Rep. Armando Martinez of Weslaco, creates a process for collecting that fee by requiring the county tax assessor to place the fee on the annual property tax bill of the property owners who benefit from the streetlights.
“I was proud to carry this legislation for LUPE and ARISE. I know how important it is for colonia residents. Finally, we can start addressing the urgent need for street lighting in our colonias,” Martinez told the Rio Grande Guardian, at the time his legislation became law.
Hidalgo County’s strategic planning director Rey Salazar proposed the Hidalgo County Streetlight program to Hidalgo County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. He said the main goal of the program is to improve the safety, security, and well-being of county residents.
Salazar said at this time, Hidalgo County is undergoing a pilot phase and has selected eight neighborhoods with 961 homes and several thousand residents. County officials are estimating the pilot program will cost $7,000 to implement.
Salazar said applications will be available beginning Jan. 1 through July 1, 2016. Each subdivision must fill out an application and based on the key criteria, will be approved by the county precinct.
Residents who are receiving the service will see a charge on their annual tax bill statement called an electricity fee and administrative fee, Salazar said. The Tax Office will collect the fee in the same manner as ad valorem taxes are collected for the county.
John-Michael Torres, communications officer for LUPE, said: “In June, we got state legislation passed that gives the county all the tools they need to create a public light system. Since then, we have been working with the county to formulate the system on paper. Now, with this vote, the system will be approved and the county can put the streetlights system into practice.
“This is a huge step and a victory for our members who have worked for streetlights for over a decade. Almost 11 years have passed since our first major meeting to address the lack of streetlights in colonias, back in December of 2004. If all goes well, by the end of this December, the first round of colonias will come out of the darkness and into the light.”
Going forward, Torres said, streetlights will be installed on a colonia-by-colonia basis. He issued these key points about the program:
– Colonias will need to apply to receive streetlights. The application process will include proof that a majority (75 percent) of homeowners in the subdivision are willing to pay for the consumption of the electricity the streetlights use.
– Precincts will pay for the installation of streetlights, while homeowners will pay for the electricity used by the lights.
– The first round of colonias, those included in Phase 1 of the county’s streetlights project, can expect to receive streetlights by the end of this year.
Valdez-Cox, LUPE’s executive director, told the Rio Grande Guardian that HB 3002 originated in house meetings by colonia residents. “We have been fighting to shed light on our colonias for more than ten years. It is an example of what can be achieved by grassroots, civic engagement. It is important that those impacted by legislation are the ones to give their voice, to tell their stories, to give their testimony on what it has been like to live without street lights.”
LUPE’s representative at the state Capitol on this legislation is John Henneberger. When the legislation championed by LUPE and ARISWE was heard in committee, Henneberger held up a large photo taken by satellite of the Rio Grande Valley at night. The McAllen-Edinburg area was lit up and so was Brownsville and Harlingen. The largest colonias were outlined on the photo and they were in total darkness. Henneberger provided the senators with copies of this photo to make his point.
“We have had a number of children struck walking to or getting off school buses,” Henneberger testified. “Security and public safety are a big concern. The colonias are so dark it is really difficult for the sheriff’s department to patrol the areas. Children are often playing outside in the colonias at night and there have been some tragic accidents with children being struck by automobiles. There are literally no street lights in these areas.”
Henneberger added that street light legislation is “a very high priority” for the people who live in colonias in Hidalgo County. “In fact, it is the No. 1 priority above everything else,” he said.