Manuel Ramirez

UT alumnus Manuel Ramirez is the first and only undocumented student with deferred action to study abroad.

Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

Following President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration Thursday, immigrants’ rights advocates say restrictions for eligible undocumented students to study abroad could be eliminated, but UT’s International Office says the program’s requirements will likely remain unchanged.

Starting in 2012, undocumented immigrants with deferred action status, which grants eligible undocumented youth temporary lawful presence, could travel abroad for education, employment or humanitarian purposes, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This opened up the opportunity for UT’s estimated 400 undocumented students to participate in a study abroad program.

The Department of Homeland Security has not announced the details of the executive order, but Deborah Alemu, a UT alumna and member of the immigrants’ right organization University Leadership Initiative, said she expected the department would strike the advanced parole permit needed for undocumented immigrants to travel abroad. 

Striking the advanced parole permit, which costs $445 when including a biometric services fee, could ease the study abroad process for undocumented students. 

“The changes pertaining [to] study abroad are going to be for the better — to make travel easier,” Alemu said. “We’re thinking they’re going to say having deferred action is sufficient and you don’t have to apply for additional permission.”

Over the summer, alumnus Manuel Ramirez became the first and only undocumented student with deferred action to study abroad. When he applied to travel to China, Ramirez said the advanced parole permit application was “stressful” and “took a lot of patience,” requiring him to submit recommendation letters, other documents and information about all of his intended whereabouts in China.

“I was the guinea pig in to how to apply: money, visas, paperwork, what kind of documents are needed,” Ramirez said. 

He said he was most unsure of his probability of successfully making it back into the U.S.

Fiona Mazurenko, a spokeswoman for the University’s International Office, said Obama’s announcement did not clarify which changes would be made for study abroad programs. She said there could be some changes to the deferred action application or advanced parole process, but the study abroad program would most likely remain the same. 

“It is likely not to be affected much, but the presidential executive order did expand DACA to more individuals, and about 290,000 individuals will now be eligible to apply, which could potentially increase the number of DACA students at UT,”
Mazurenko said. 

According to Mazurenko, “several” undocumented students were interested in spring and summer 2015 study abroad programs, and more than 65 students participated in the International Office’s information sessions for deferred action recipients. She said the International Office hopes to increase access to study abroad for underrepresented groups.

High school summers for Manuel Ramirez resembled those of many teenagers — he worked with his dad. But what sets Ramirez and his father apart is that, as undocumented day laborers, they were often sent packing without a fair wage when the job was done.

“It was typical,” recalls Ramirez, an international relations and global studies sophomore. “While we worked, the people who hired us called us racist things like wetback or dirty Mexican. And when it came time to pay, they pretended like they didn’t have the money.”

For Ramirez and millions of other immigrants, the exploitative treatment endured by undocumented workers is closely tied to the current push for immigration reform. One out of two construction workers in Texas is undocumented, and problems like wage theft are rampant.

Issues like poor working conditions are often swept aside as the national conversation on immigration reform is dominated by talk of hard-line enforcement. In recent weeks, two marches organized by immigrant rights activists sought to highlight the need for truly comprehensive immigration reform. By putting wage theft and human rights center stage, these Texas activists provide local voices to a national debate.

Ramirez now volunteers with the Workers Defense Project, an Austin-area organization composed of low-income workers fighting for legal rights and job safety. On Feb. 27th, WDP honored undocumented and other vulnerable construction workers who died on the job. The Day of the Fallen had special meaning for Ramirez because of his childhood, and because many undocumented workers refuse to report abuse, assault, wage theft or deadly working conditions for fear they will be reported to immigration authorities. That’s why Ramirez believes Texas is uniquely positioned to incorporate worker protections into the agenda of immigration reform.

“Immigration affects families, students, and people’s homes. What happens to the kids whose parents die on the job? Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., things are being built everywhere by undocumented workers. We need to care about what happens to their families,” said Ramirez.

He points out that three workers died building a luxury high rise in West Campus a few summers ago and their families struggled to receive compensation. Last summer, another worker fell off a West Campus construction site after his employers failed to provide him with a proper safety harness. For Ramirez, being undocumented should never be a reason for a worker’s death, and Texans cannot turn a blind eye to the people who are crucial parts of local communities.

Esther Reyes is on the front lines of another obscured problem: the human rights violations that accompany strict enforcement of immigration laws. As the director of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition (AIRC), headquartered at UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, she says that a pathway to citizenship represents only one part of the bigger political picture. Strict immigration policies often mean bloody encounters at the border or the systematic criminalization of immigrant families. For example, from 2008-2011, over 2,600 Travis County residents were deported under a criminal migrant program — but more than 80 percent were non-criminals, according the Austin Chronicle. Many were arrested for minor infractions such as traffic violations.

Despite longstanding ties to the community, hundreds of undocumented immigrants are thrown into Austin jails every year. Criminal migrant programs rarely make the news and are not on Congress’ comprehensive immigration reform agenda, Reyes said, but they are responsible for terrorizing immigrant communities and destroying trust between law enforcement and vulnerable migrants.

AIRC is part of a statewide coalition with other activist groups called the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance. Members of RITA joined business leaders, community members, and government officials on Feb. 22nd to push for accountability in enforcement. RITA emphasizes that humane reform means an end to the militarization of the border and to criminal migrant programs.

As the state with the longest border with Mexico, Reyes said, “Texas is sending a unified voice for humane immigration reform to D.C. Our priorities include keeping families together, respecting human rights and civil liberties, and promoting community security by holding government officials accountable.”

During the Texas Legislature session two years ago, Reyes, Ramirez and their activist groups worked to defeat over 80 bills that would harm the immigrant community. This year, they marched to the Capitol and told stories of children taken from their parents or workers who died because of irresponsible employers, and the pressure is even higher.

Ramirez knows the eyes of Texas and D.C. politicians are on Austin: “The way immigrants are treated is not just an immigration issue. It’s about not risking your life to put food on the table for your kids. [Comprehensive immigration reform] would allow people to contribute to pay taxes, contribute to the economy and not live in fear of deportation or violence.”

Athar is an anthropology senior from Houston.

Biology freshman Josh Pina and international relations and global studies freshman Manuel Ramirez wait in the elevator of Jester West while hanging out Sunday afternoon. Pina and Ramirez are among the 17.6 percent of UT students who are Latino.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

Editor's note: This story is the first in a series exploring race, racism and diversity on the UT campus.

Two UT students aim to challenge common conceptions about young Latino men in college during their time on the 40 Acres. Manuel Ramirez, an international relations and global studies freshman, and Josh Pina, a biology freshman, are good friends who made it to UT in very different ways.

The Latino population of the U.S. is estimated at 50.5 million, about 16.3 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The percentage of Latinos enrolled at UT has steadily risen during the last four years. Latinos currently make up 17.6 percent of student enrollment, but social expectations, negative influences in low status neighborhoods and low access to high-caliber education pose challenges that prevent them from enrolling in higher education institutions.

Ramirez was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. When Ramirez was 9-years-old, his parents crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. to work as migrant field workers picking strawberries in Texas, Tennessee and Florida. His family settled in the rural town of Florence, Texas where they did yard work for their neighbors.

Ramirez said his family was one of the five Latino families that didn’t speak English in a town with a population of about 1,000 at the time.

Pina is a third-generation Mexican-American, but he said he didn’t grow up practicing his grandparents’ Mexican customs. He grew up in the east side of Amarillo where communities consist of Latino and black neighborhoods of lower socioeconomic status. When he attended magnet programs in middle and high school on the west side of town, where the population is predominantly white, he felt like part of a minority group in school for the first time even though he did not speak Spanish.

“It was difficult to get used to the environment at first, and I had to face the stereotype my peers had of me,” Pina said. “I also had to prove that I was more than the low expectations some of my teachers had of me.”

Pina said he benefited from the education he received at the schools of higher caliber that he attended because of the standard of education and college preparation they provided. He began his first year at the University with various scholarships and credit hours he obtained through dual-enrollment classes.

During Ramirez’s junior year in high school, his counselor told him he couldn’t enroll in dual credit enrollment classes his school offered because of his undocumented status.

His counselor was unaware of House Bill 1403, a state law that allows undocumented students to attend college if they graduated from a Texas high school and resided in the state for at least three years before graduation. Ramirez said he felt defeated when his former girlfriend and her family suggested they get married in order to grant him citizenship.

Eventually, it was her family that helped him find University Leadership Initiative, an undocumented student activist group at UT that guided him through the process of enrolling in college.

Ramirez graduated third in his high school class and is one of the 600 undocumented students that ULI estimates are enrolled at UT.

“College is such a natural thing for others. It’s the next step,” he said. “It all happened so fast, and it still hasn’t hit me that I am here because I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel like.”

Pina and Ramirez both said one of the biggest challenges they faced was not having academic role models in the their communities to look up to while growing up, but they both dreamed of going to college. Today, they have become role models for others.

Pina’s parents didn’t make it to their high school graduations, as both dropped out to help their own parents make ends meet.

He considers himself a role model for his four younger siblings and for his parents. His father, Danny Pina, is following in his son’s pursuit and currently attends Amarillo College.

“My wife and I missed out on a lot of things for lack of money and encouragement,” Danny Pina said. “We didn’t have someone pushing us to be better.”

Ramirez’s younger sister Maria, who is graduating from Florence High School this year, will be attending UT in the fall.

“Our whole lives we have been limited to what we can do based on what others tell us we can and can’t do,” she said. “My brother found the motivation to prove to the people that told him he couldn’t go to college wrong.”

Ramirez said his journey is one that Latino students can follow to surpass the expectations their communities impose on them.

“You grow up with cultural and social expectations that are imposed on you by your community and eventually start believing them,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a statistic. I just wanted to go to college, and here I am.” 

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Latino Students succeed in face of odds