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December 17, 2017

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Immigration status of UNLV student senate candidate sparks controversy

War of words plays out in student newspaper letters section


Christopher DeVargas

Jose Garcia, an undocumented student at UNLV who is currently running for student senate, allegedly received threats from current student senators that they would report him to the student elections board, which could lead to legal trouble including deportation, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012.

Election Day has come and gone, but the name-calling, accusations and uncivil nature of election season are still playing out at UNLV.

In October, the Consolidated Students of University of Nevada Judicial Council invalidated the student government elections due to procedural errors and disorganization. Jose Garcia, a student running for a student government senate seat, says a sitting student senator told him shortly afterward he should be glad the election was invalidated.

“I asked him why because I was excited and wanted to win election,” said Garcia, 20. “He told me that if I had won, (student senator) Rachel Stephens was ready to file a complaint against me with the elections board because I’m an ‘illegal.’”

Garcia’s parents brought him to New Mexico from Chihuahua, Mexico, when he was 2 years old. His father had found a job on a farm in New Mexico but did not have a work visa. Garcia said his father crossed the border routinely in those days without papers, and he did not think twice about taking the family with him. Soon after, the whole family moved to Phoenix, where Garcia grew up.

Garcia, now a junior, was elected to the student senate as a freshman but lost his re-election bid in his sophomore year. Since then, he has become more open about not having a legal residency status. He has applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows some young immigrants who are residing in the country illegally to avoid deportation and obtain a two-year work permit and social security number. The program was instituted earlier this year.

The invalidated election was rescheduled for Nov. 28 and 29. On Nov. 19, UNLV’s student newspaper, The Rebel Yell, published a letter from Garcia that criticized Stephens for creating an intolerant and intimidating environment.

Stephens, 25, said Garcia never contacted her and that her primary concern was the integrity of the student organization, which she did not want to be in jeopardy of breaking federal law.

“I’m upset about the fact that he claims he fears for his safety and I waged a campaign to silence him. It’s absolutely false, and his accusations are very harmful,” Stephens said, adding that she has no issue with immigrants and her ex-husband is the son of immigrants from China. Stephens also addressed Garcia’s allegations in a response letter to the Rebel Yell.

Garcia said he did attempt to contact Stephens by email, but not until after he submitted his letter to the newspaper.

Stephens, the rules and ethics chairman, argued that because the elected members of the student government are technically employees and receive a $50 weekly stipend, UNLV would be breaking federal law if Garcia were allowed to be a senator.

In his first term as senator, Garcia did not accept the stipend and never filled out employment paperwork with the university. He did benefit from a tuition waiver for student senators.

“The funding for CSUN comes from student tuition, which I pay into,” said Garcia, who gets financial help from his parents and also receives a scholarship from the honors college.

Stephens said Garcia knew about the comments for weeks before penning his letter to the Rebel Yell and said he may have waited so he could stir up attention closer to the rescheduled election.

Garcia said he was distracted by exams when he first heard of Stephens’ comments and the real reason he took action later was to address a culture of conflict and intolerance in student government and on campus. In his letter, he names Stephens and CSUN President Mark Ciavola as having contributed to the contentious environment.

Ciavola did not return a call seeking comment but addressed Garcia’s letter with his own letter to the Rebel Yell.

“I resent the implication that CSUN is somehow racist because an individual allegedly made an offensive comment that was transmitted via gossip. This edition of CSUN is one of the most diverse in history, and I am proud of the work we’ve done this year for all students,” Ciavola wrote. “The truth is that Jose Garcia doesn’t like people with whom he disagrees politically, and he is willing to do anything to destroy them in order to regain his seat in the CSUN Senate.”

Garcia said two separate sitting senators informed him of Stephens’ comments and that he verified it with a third senator to whom he reached out. He plans to file a complaint.

Stephens, who said the U.S. immigration system is in need of reform but was not sure what that reform should be, said she was a Republican Party member who leans Libertarian, and perhaps her constitutionalist background spurred her to act while others in student government were reluctant to do so.

Garcia said that despite the controversy and how the issue has played out on the front page of the student newspaper, his concerns were more focused on the culture at UNLV rather than on himself or Stephens. Garcia and other students say they know of other undocumented student who served in student government, but Garcia was open about his status on campus and in campaign materials.

“There have been undocumented students in prominent CSUN positions before,” Garcia said. “A lot of undocumented students don’t want to speak up. This is not about me. It’s about the anti-immigrant environment in Nevada and in the Southwest in general.”

Stephens said her only mention of deportation to the other senators was out of concern for Garcia if he were elected and she felt the need to file an election complaint that would further expose him. Garcia, whose father is now in proceedings to establish a legal residency status and whose three younger sisters all are U.S. citizens, said any mention of deportation indicated Stephens’ lack of sensitivity to the issue.

“Honestly, I don’t think she understands what being undocumented entails and what it really means when someone talks about deportation,” Garcia said. “Growing up, I thought a lot of these positions were a generational thing, but to see them here at UNLV makes you realize you see it with all ages. My father was deported when I was 16, and that was extremely difficult. I had to be the man of the family. Deportation means separating families. There are emotional scars triggered when someone mentions deportation.”

Gil Revolorio, one of the senators who communicated Stephens’ statements to Garcia, said he understood Stephens’ position.

“Rachel brought up her concerns, which were based on facts and the rules we have to follow, and I 100 percent agreed with her,” Revolorio said.

He added that he did not think Stephens’ comments were based on an ethnic or racial bias.

“I’m Hispanic,” Revolorio said. “I don’t think (Stephens) is racist at all. I don’t think racism is an issue. I’m Hispanic and we are buddies. If she were racist against Hispanics, she would not talk to me. Rachel is 100 percent constitutionalist, and I think that’s where this is coming from.”

Revolorio said he went to Garcia to talk about Stephens’ concerns, and perhaps if everyone involved had communicated with each other instead of through the Rebel Yell’s letters page, some animosity and misunderstanding could have been avoided.

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