When the results of the Texas A&M University election for student body president (SBP) were finalized this morning, one candidate had already made an impact–even though he lost the election. Jose Luis Zelaya was a candidate for SBP for many different reasons, from improving student services to promoting access to higher education. However, he was not running for the reason that many people took notice of his campaign: Zelaya is an undocumented immigrant.
“I’m not running because I’m undocumented,” said Zelaya. “I’m running because I’m an Aggie.” Zelaya told the Texas Independent in an interview prior to the release of the election results that he was also running because of his involvement with student organizations on campus, where people often told him he should run. “A lot of people I talked to thought it would be a good idea if I ran, and said that I would represent A&M well.”
Zelaya’s campaign platform has focused on advocating for students and improving student communication with the administration and improving student services. “I think we can advocate for more access to higher education at the local, state and national level,” said Zelaya. “A significant part of my campaign is how can we get better food services, better transportation service, and other student services. I am concerned with the raising of student fees and tuition without feedback from students.”
Zelaya’s nine pages of position papers on issues include his stances on bettering communications between the student government, the faculty, and the students. He also wants to keep the university accountable to the students for how it is using student fees. Other issues include keeping the transition from the Big XII conference to the Southeastern Conference smooth, and ensuring that construction around campus and the renovation of the Memorial Student Center continue to go well.
Throughout the campaign, he says the vast majority of his interactions with students have been positive and his immigration status has not been a major concern. He has not faced much negativity during the campaign. “Personally there hasn’t been much, but online there have been comments,” said Zelaya. “There have been comments that I should be burned, set on fire and sent back to Mexico.” Zelaya was born in Honduras.
“The campaign has been great,” said Zelaya. “It has probably been one of the most beautiful things I have experienced.” Zelaya says that he has been able to use his personal story to connect with students, and help inspire them. “It has been a great experience getting to know the students and hearing their opinions and concerns. I had a student come up and say that he was going to withdraw from A&M, but after hearing the obstacles I have overcome he decided to stay at A&M.”
The campaign for SBP has received much more media coverage than is typical, and most of it has been driven by Zelaya’s immigration status. Zelaya tries to keep it in perspective, and use the exposure in a positive way. “The whole media thing is a great way to inspire people,” said Zelaya. “That eleven years ago I was homeless and now I’m in college – if the fact that I can go to college can inspire people, I think that can make an impact.”
While Zelaya has not focused on his immigration status during the campaign he has not been afraid to speak out on immigration issues. The Texas Independent previously reported Zelaya’s and another undocumented student’s story during Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s ill fated campaign for the Republican nomination for President.
Zelaya told his story of growing up in poverty and hardship with an abusive father. His brother died when he was just five years old, and their home was destroyed in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch. His mother fled her dangerous marriage in 2000, moving to the U.S. with his sister. A 45-day journey that began in Guatemala, brought him to the United Sates seeking to reunite with his family.
Zelaya was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol attempting to cross from Mexico, and his case slowly worked its way through the immigration system. So far, his application for political asylum has been denied, in part, he said, because the hurricane that destroyed his childhood home also took the medical and police records he’d need for his case. Today, he describes his immigration status as “frustrated.”
In all of the media coverage Zelaya is referred to as an “illegal” immigrant. Organizations like the Applied Research Center have campaigned to end the use of “the i-word,” saying that the “i-word” is a “racially charged slur used to dehumanize and discriminate against immigrants and people of color regardless of migratory status.”
Zelaya thinks that the use of “illegal” is an important issue. “Many people might say that illegal is politically correct,” said Zelaya. “During slavery the word “nigger” was also politically correct. There are certain words that hurt our society’s humanity. There are certain words that destroy an individual’s humanity. My status doesn’t define me.”
During the student election at Texas A&M, another student has gained media attention for attempting to be elected as the first female Yell Leader in the school’s history. Samantha Ketcham, who was profiled by the Wall Street Journal, has faced another type of obstacle in what is viewed as a male only tradition. But Zelaya sees her candidacy as another positive step forward for Texas A&M. “She doesn’t want to break tradition, she wants to start a tradition.”
During the campaign and in interviews with other media outlets, Zelaya has maintained that the focus of his campaign has not been about his immigration status and that his focus is on something bigger than himself. His focus has been on embracing all students at Texas A&M. “I think that we can unify campus,” said Zelaya. “We’re Aggies and that is the thing that unites us.”
When election results were announced early this morning, Zelaya did not receive enough votes to qualify for the runoff election. However, as Zelaya was fond of saying, “No matter the result, we’ve already won.”