Texas bills bring uncertainty for immigrant students

Photo Courtesy of Meadow Pena

With the passing of SB 17, the Latino community at UTD will have to organize cultural celebrations and events with less support from their school, and with SB 4, law enforcement will be broadly empowered to take action against those they suspect of being undocumented, LULAC representatives said.

SB 17 went into effect on Jan. 1, 2024, and has immediately impacted the resources available to students through the dissolution of ODEI­. SB 4, depending on many legal challenges, will go into effect on March 5, 2024, and it will classify crossing the Mexico-Texas border outside of designated ports of entry as a misdemeanor and allow Texas law enforcement rather than federal immigration agents to enforce this law. Reuters said the U.S. Justice Department sees this action as unconstitutional and civil rights groups such as the ACLU and the Immigration Forum said they see it as a severe infringement on civil rights. The Mexican government and the U.S. attorney general oppose the bill – the attorney general and the city of Houston are suing the state over it. The bill requires that state judges deport migrants if convicted while allowing charges to be dropped if the migrant returns to Mexico of their own volition.

Amongst scrapped ODEI events include The Multicultural Center Gala was previously held on April 28, 2023, as an event specifically dedicated to celebrating the diverse communities at UTD — including Pride, LULAC and the ASU.

“I remember going to a multicultural center event last spring with LULAC, and I loved it,” UTD Democrats president Meadow Pena said. “It was a banquet for all of us that are minorities on the campus. But things like the banquet cost money. It’s scary to think that that may have been the last event like that to bring all of the different organizations for the minorities on campus together.”

The national branch of LULAC officially denounced SB 4 on Nov. 15, 2023, shortly after it had been passed by both houses of the legislature — the governor signed it into law in December. LULAC said the law was an attack on the Latino community since it “criminalizes the act of crossing the border without proper documentation” while simultaneously empowering Texas police to arrest immigrants while “blatantly sidestepping established federal immigration protocols.” Felony charges could be applied to those charged by Texas police for multiple violations of this law.

“When I’m in the car with my mom, I’m scared, even though I was born a citizen here,” Pena said. “I’m scared for my family because we could just get pulled over because of the color of our skin, because we look Latino. Even though we’re citizens, it is like we now have to constantly prove it.”

Students who are suspected of being in the country illegally or of having crossed the border outside of designated ports could be given jail time of up to six months in jail for the first offense, with increasing punishments for repeated charges including 20 years in prison and even deportation. UTD students in prison or deported from the country would face extreme obstacles toward completing their degree plans as UTDSP5003 section A subsection 1.2 would consider either instance a violation of the student code of conduct which would result in disciplinary proceedings under the dean of students.

“Students are paying tuition to be at this university, and anything could happen that would force them to leave; stripping them of all their education and money spent on tuition,” Pena said. “It could all be gone because they were pulled over and the officer assumed they weren’t here legally based on the color of their skin.”

The Justice Department is currently suing the state of Texas after Associate Attorney General of the U.S. Vanita Gupta said that SB4 is “clearly unconstitutional.” However, if the law is not declared unconstitutional then it will go into effect as planned. Pena emphasizes that SB 4 makes the major investment of attending university and working towards paying tuition something Latino students will have to constantly worry about when it could be removed from them the deportation of their loved ones and possibly even themselves. UTD Democrats and UTD LULAC are among the student organizations that oppose SB 4.

“I think this is going to create a lot more animosity towards law enforcement,” vice president of UTD Democrats Isabella Spartz said. “[SB4] just doesn’t create a better or safer environment for anyone.”

The non-profit immigrant advocacy group National Immigration Forum (NIF) expressed similar sentiment regarding the increased sense of resentment and fear which SB 4 would cause to fester between law enforcement and immigrant communities. The NIF said that “SB 4 bars any local policy that would prohibit police officers from questioning a person’s immigration status, even during routine detainments such as traffic stops.” Spartz fears that this will cause a cascade of uncertainty and fear that will heavily impact vulnerable groups on campus beyond just the large on campus immigrant community.

“I know that this is bad, and it is going to have ripple effects on all communities, especially for women,” Spartz said. “Women are the victims of sexual assault at higher rates, and this kind of legislation makes it so that a lot of women won’t be able to go to the police if they are being harassed because the huge fear of being deported overshadows this.”

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