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McALLEN, RGV – Rio Grande Valley residents should not be afraid of President Trump because civil rights attorneys are going to stand right beside them and defend them in court, no matter what their immigration status.

This is the view of Efrén Olivares, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s newly created Racial and Economic Justice Program.

Efrén Olivares

“This is something I have been trying to drive home to people. I think it is critical that those of us in this kind of work move away from the narrative of fear. All this, ‘People are afraid, they are afraid of the changes, they are uncertain, they do not know what is going to happen.’ We cannot be saying that,” Olivares said.

“We are the leaders of this community and our people look to us for guidance. We cannot be talking about fear. Fear was Nov. 9, the day after the presidential election. But we done being afraid. We are ready, we are prepared, we have the tools. We cannot rely on Congress to check on the executive branch. But, we have the courts and at least until now we have the rule of law and they (the courts) will be there to check on the executive branch and even on Congress.”

Olivares made his comments in in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at a fundraiser for TCRP held at the Law Office of John Escamilla in McAllen. Mimi Marziani, Austin-based executive director of TCRP, also spoke at the fundraiser.

“We will use all the legal tools available to defend Valley residents and we not afraid, we are prepared,” Olivares said. “It is very easy to fall into that narrative, ‘yes, everyone in the community is so afraid.’ We cannot be repeating that. It is dangerous. We need to wake up from that and say, we are not afraid. We are ready and we are going to stand right here with you and we are going to defend you.”

Leaders of the community groups that assist low-income and immigrant families in the Valley’s colonias have talked about “fear” being widespread in the community since President Trump’s election victory on Nov. 8. Asked to explain why there would be fear, Olivares said:

“It has not happened yet but the signs we are getting from the executive orders this week is a complete disregard by the new administration for due process, which, by the way, is there and protects everybody regardless of their immigration status. Just because you are undocumented does not mean that you can be thrown out of the country and or thrown in jail for no reason. That is from the U.S. Constitution and it does not care about immigration status.”

Farm Worker Movement

Olivares said that while these are challenging times, immigrant families in the Valley have known such times before. For this reason, he said, they should stay strong.

“In many ways, the things that are coming are unprecedented but in some ways, they are not. Our communities have been facing this kind of oppression for many, many, years and we have been resilient. It has been hard, it has been a struggle and we have come out ahead. And we will continue to do that. I want everyone to have that mindset. This is not the first time we have been in a struggle, in a fight. It is a very new fight and a different one in many ways. But, we have been here before and we have come out of it.”

Asked to explain, Olivares said: “The Texas Civil Rights Project was founded by Jim Harrington and it was born out of the farm workers movement, especially here in South Texas. One of the fights they had back then in the 70s and 80s, before I joined, was having access to a latrine in the fields, a bathroom in the fields, getting water breaks, being able to drink water. That took an entire campaign and lawsuits to have water and the length of the hoe, it was a couple of feet long and they had to have demonstrations and marches to have the long hoes so they would not have to be bent over.

“So, these things, entire families have heard about it and were part of that struggle for years. So, those were the struggles of their parents or their grandparents. Now, it is their children who are suffering the oppression. They made it through before and they will make it through again. And we will be right there with them.”

Many of the children and grandchildren of those farm workers are now professionals, such as doctors and lawyers and teachers. Olivares said the experience of what their parents and grandparents went through makes this part of south Texas unique.

“It gives you a very unique perspective, to have lived through that and to have seen your family go through that. Now, you are in a sense privileged, to be able to have a degree and have a good life. It makes you part of that culture, which is a very unique culture here in the Valley.”

Racial and Economic Justice Program

The Racial and Economic Justice Program is one of three specialist areas of work for the Texas Civil Rights Project. The others are the Voting Rights Program and the Criminal Justice Reform Program. Asked to explain the work of the Racial and Economic Justice Program, Olivares said:

“The program focuses on a variety of issues having to do with institutional discrimination. In the sense of the state government and the city government discriminating against people for a number of reasons, race, ethnicity, and, particularly here on the border, immigration status. Independent of your immigration status, there are many things the government are not supposed to do. It is not relevant, for example, for issuing a birth certificate for your child. The immigration status of the parent is completely irrelevant. Admitting your child to a public school, immigration status is completely irrelevant. There are a number of other things for which your immigration status is completely irrelevant. So, that area is a particular focus for the Racial and Economic Justice Program,” Olivares said.

“Up until now they were more at the local and state level but now we are very much looking forward to them at the federal level – the disregard of the rights of immigrants and their families.”

Judge Andrew S. Hanen’s Ruling

U.S. Federal Judge Andrew S. Hanen was often a thorn in the side of the Obama Administration when it came to implementing an executive order to allow young undocumented immigrants of good standing to obtain a social security card and work.

Olivares believes the roadblocks Hanen put in the way of Obama, through various injunctions, could now be used successfully against Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Asked to elaborate, Olivares said:

“An injunction from Judge Hanen in early 2016 held that certain changes ordered by President Obama not be implemented unless they went through the administrative procedures act process, which includes a period set aside for public comment and hearings. It is a complicated process. Unless that policy goes through that process, it cannot be implemented. That is what held up DAPA in the courts,” Olivares said.

DAPA stands for Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.

“Well now, all these things that the new president has announced this week, if he tries to implement many of them, and many of them are draconian, without going through that process we will be right there in front of the courts saying, your honor, you need to enjoin that policy, it cannot go into force until it goes through the administrative procedures act process, just like you ordered,” Olivares said.

“That option is useful for any attempted repeal of DACA. The other directives Trump has issued, most of them are so vague that it is hard to know how they will be implemented but the executive order directs the secretary of homeland security to, for example, issue enforcement guidelines that focus on offenses that have, quote, a nexus to the southern border. What does that mean? I have no idea. If your last name is Gonzalez, you have a nexus to the southern border. It lends itself to terrible racial profiling. But, the way it should play out is that the secretary of homeland security will issue a memorandum implementing that directive. That is a concrete application of the executive order. Once we see that, in the next few weeks, that is when we will be ready to go to court, if necessary.”

Another example Olivares cited is President Trump’s executive order to build a border wall.

“Take the Wall. There are many landowners that own land on the border where Trump will want to build a wall and the landowners are opposed to it. That is going to generate a few dozen, if not a few hundred lawsuits. It is not that simple and we are going to be right there, defending those people, if necessary.”

Asked if he expected his workload to increase during the Trump presidency, Olivares answered affirmatively. Asked if TCRP has enough attorneys to cope an increased workload, he said:

“We are looking to partner with attorneys that do private practice as a full-time job but maybe have the capacity to take on one case or a couple of cases, pro-bono. They can partner with us. We have the know-how, the experience and we have offices in other parts of the state so, we definitely have the know-how. We are always looking to grow and have more resources, more human resources, more staff but we will definitely do everything we can with what we have.”

Editor’s Note: Video-Journalist Apolonio ‘Apol’ Sandoval, Jr., contributed to this story from McAllen, Texas.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the Texas Civil Rights Project. Part Two will be published later this week.


  1. Mr. Olivares is completely right. Fear gets people killed. Let’s understand Donald Trump is a bully, but he is a bully because he is a coward. He is insecure and fearful. His response is bigotry and hatred. He is attempting to induce mass fear, just as George Bush did after 9-11. The nation succumbed to the hysteria Bush tried to create. Look where that got us–endless war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the destabilization of Libya which now is a “failed state”, ISIS, the decapitation by ISIS of U.S. citizens. All of this occurred because a traumatized nation succumbed to fear mongering and hate mongering. And how many are dead as a consequence. We cannot be afraid. We must have the courage to stand up and fight all of the fascist actions President Trump is going to take. Do not hate him. Do not fear him. Feel sorry for him because he is a sniveling little coward.