COLLEGE STATION, Texas – In a dark hall outside of the student ballroom, friends surrounded José Luis Zelaya to console him.
An undocumented graduate student at Texas A&M, Zelaya was denied confirmation as Vice President of Diversity to the student Senate on Tuesday night, his immigration status cited as a main concern of those who voted against him.
“It’s hard,” said Zelaya, holding back tears. “I was just told by my family that I don’t belong here, that no matter how hard I work, how American I want to be, that I will never be good enough.”
Zelaya, who emigrated from Honduras at age 14, left a life of violence to join his mother in Houston in 1999. In 2012, he joins an estimated 300 undocumented students at Texas A&M. Earlier in the year, he attracted national media attention when he ran for student body president, a position never before held by an undocumented student. Though he eventually lost to John Claybrook, the newly elected president nominated him to the vice president of diversity position believing that there was no one more qualified.
Last week, after Zelaya’s confirmation was denied with his immigration status listed as a concern by several Senators, students and organizations leapt to his defense.
Texas A&M’s student newspaper, The Battalion, ran a front page editorial on Tuesday asking the student senate to change its decision in the second and final confirmation attempt. “On Wednesday (the 25th), senators voted against their organization’s best candidate to reach minority groups,” it read. “Tuesday night, they can rectify this mistake.”
Support for Zelaya at the confirmation hearing was visible.
“Our values have been violated,” said sophomore Marshall Rinker, attending his first senate meeting to voice his support for Zelaya.
“Immigration is not an Aggie issue, it’s a federal issue,” he continued. “If you have a problem with it, call your Congressman.”
There are so many undocumented students who want to serve and are told ‘no’, but we don’t need a title to make a difference.”
- Jose Luis Zelaya
Zachary Wooldridge, on the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, urged his fellow senators to look past Zelaya’s immigration status.
“He’s an Aggie. He’s got that ring,” Wooldridge said, as senators hit the tables in applause. “That’s good enough for me.”
President Claybrook echoed the sentiment. “What makes A&M great is that Aggies are taught values needed to succeed in and outside of the classroom,” he continued. “I think embracing diversity would only further deepens our values.“
Although similar comments were met with applause, several senators remained skeptical.
“I’m not going to be politically correct here,” said senator Cary Cheshire, a member of Texas Aggie Conservatives. “Zelaya’s status is a problem for me…I think that it’s a huge liability for Texas A&M to bring in somebody who, depending on the presidential race, could be deported next year.”
Other senators consider Zelaya in violation of university rules. “Policy states that you must be in accordance with local, state, and federal law to hold a position,” said Thomas McNutt, a student senator.
“Is he in accordance with local law? I don’t know. Is he in accordance with state law? I don’t know,” McNutt said. “Is he in accordance with federal law? I do know that one.”
Although most of the student senators supported Zelaya’s bid, the 30 to 26 vote fell short of the two-thirds needed for confirmation.
The Hispanic President’s Council is concerned with the message that the Senate’s action sends to the student population.
“A lot of Hispanics might feel that there is still a barrier at A&M that needs to be addressed,” said Joséph Puente, the Council’s director of marketing.
“The old line that A&M is a conservative school is no longer the case,” Puente continued. “It is a much more diverse campus than it used to be.”
Texas HB 1403, also known as the Texas Dream Act, was introduced by then-Representative Rick Noriega in 2001. According to Lee Teran, an immigration lawyer at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, “the legislation treats these students as residents for purposes of education, given that they have lived in the state for three years prior to high school graduation,” Teran said.
“This is a student position, not a political position,” Teran said. “There’s no Act anywhere that says he can’t hold that position.”
With no options left to him, Zelaya remains undaunted. “There are so many undocumented students who want to serve and are told ‘no’,” he said. “But we don’t need a title to make a difference.”
Eva Hershaw is a freelance journalist currently pursuing two master's degrees in Journalism and Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.