Monday, November 26, 2007

So what will go down in the Valley?

Great article by Dr. Acevedo that helps paint a picture of the circumstances and realities of far too many Texans. -Patricia

Sun, Nov. 18, 2007
Special to the Star-Telegram

The Rio Grande Valley comprises the counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy -- roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined.

These four counties make up one of the most economically and socially disenfranchised regions in not only Texas but the whole United States. Former Texas Comptroller John Sharpe said in 1998: "If South Texas was the fifty-first state, it would rank last in all social indices."

It also is my area of research.

It is a region ignored by both Washington and Austin, an incubator that provides a regressive environment for its population -- 90 percent of which are Mexican-Americans who are related by one or two degrees of sanguinity from relatives in Mexico.

The population also is one that, according to regional scholars such as Chad Richardson and Rosalva Resendiz of the University of Texas-Pan American, uses Spanish as the primary language in its social, cultural, political and economic interactions.

This reliance on Spanish might be a curse and a blessing to this population -- a curse in that it curtails the ability to fully benefit from educational development and economic resources in the region, and a blessing in that it provides for a connectivity that reinforces cultural and linguistic heritage along a border that runs more than 750 miles from Brownsville to El Paso.

The challenges are similar to those that Douglas J. Besharov of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy addressed at a macro level for Hispanic immigrants in the United States in a recent article in The New York Times headlined "The Rio Grande Rises."

Besharov focused on the economic development of the immigrant Hispanic community but never intended to touch base with the region between northern Mexico and the southwestern United States.

According to the Intercultural Development Research Association, there is a cumulative 46 percent dropout rate in the region's public schools; 62 percent of children have no health insurance and might have even more limited access to health resources as a result of the president's veto of the SCHIP legislation. A continuing economic impediment is that the region's median income is, on average, 35 percent below the median of $37,000 for the balance of Texas as reported by the Texas comptroller's office.

All of this activity falls within an inordinate demographic growth that is, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, at a minimum of 13 percent above the national rate. And the bureau also reported a 34 percent cumulative poverty rate for the region in its American Community Survey of 2002.

Something is out of balance here, and it requires the attention of government in Washington and Austin.

The area is bedeviled by a misguided and ill-advised immigration policy. The region resembles a martial state. Of 13,000 border agents (the "Greenies," as they are called here), 85 percent are assigned to posts along the U.S. border with Mexico, and the balance to the Canadian border and other ports of entry.

Additionally, there are plans to build a wall to separate and protect the region's Mexican-Americans from a mirror-image population on the south side of the Rio Grande.

Of course, none of the Homeland Security policy wunderkinder seem to recall that the only potential terrorist entries to the United States that the American people know about were via the Canadian border.

Did the Great Wall of China keep out the Mongol invaders? Did the Berlin Wall keep communism intact? Are such barriers in Israel engendering good will between the Jewish and Arab communities?

Another continuing and debilitating situation is the erosion of the environment and physical infrastructure brought on by the expanded land traffic resulting from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

What are some possible policy actions to be considered?

First, the policy brokers in Washington and Austin need to make better use of mid-decade census data and stop relying on the old 2000 census data to guide their thinking. That is akin to keeping a milk carton in your refrigerator way past the expiration date.

Second, it is time to realize that the future of Texas, as noted by state demographer Steven Murdock, is linked to the continued development of the educational and economic capacity and welfare of its Mexican-American community.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this population is on average seven to eight years younger than the majority population and will account for 60 percent of all public school enrollments in Texas by the fall of 2008.

It is not difficult to discern that this group will represent the majority of Texas' employees, military personnel, taxpayers and Social Security contributors. The continued regression of this population, as a result of inadequate knowledge capital, will hurt the greater society and its continued welfare.

The corresponding challenge to the majority stakeholders is how to maximize the potential of Mexican-Americans to be fully engaged in the state's economy.

Further, the Rio Grande Valley is the nexus for the balance of our nation's Latin American foreign policy. If we cannot devise a reasonable immigration policy, where will we ground our relationships with the balance of the Western Hemisphere?

The Rio Grande will indeed rise as more stress is placed on this region as it attempts to respond to its challenges while swimming against the bad policy streams that originate in Washington and Austin.

This region links the futures of the United States and Mexico -- but it cannot and will not fulfill its potential in its current state of disenfranchisement.

Baltazar Arispe y Acevedo Jr., Ph.D., is a professor of educational administration and research director of the Center for Applied Research in Education in the College of Education at the University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg.

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