Local immigrant advocacy groups recognized with human rights award

Members of LUPE at a protest in 2018. (Courtesy photo)

Two Rio Grande Valley immigrant advocacy groups will be honored Thursday during a ceremony in Washington for their work during the Trump administration’s implementation of the zero tolerance policy that left thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents in 2018.

La Union del Pueblo Entero, the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, and Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, an immigrant advocacy group from El Paso, will be recognized Thursday morning by the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation as laureates of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

According to the foundation’s website, the honor, created more than 30 years ago in memoriam of Robert F. Kennedy, is awarded to individuals or groups who stand up to oppression at grave personal risk in the nonviolent pursuit of human rights.

Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of LUPE, said the recognition from the Kennedy foundation is an honor for her and everyone involved with the nonprofit.

Founded in 1989 by labor leaders and civil rights activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, LUPE was established to help workers and their families by using the same principles and strategies used to build the United Farm Workers of America in the early 1960s.

In 2003, Valdez-Cox, who at the time was the state director for the United Farm Workers of America, formally established LUPE in the Valley.

She and the more than 8,000 members and staff have since participated in protests against injustices to vulnerable communities in the Valley, and across the country.

In addition to protests, the group is instrumental in providing resources to members of the local immigrant communities.

Valdez-Cox, along with volunteers and members of LUPE, was at the forefront of protests against last year’s zero tolerance policy.

The policy, instituted last summer, led to the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their parents before President Trump signed an executive order to stop the practice.

In protest, Valdez-Cox and many others from LUPE participated last June in a 24-day non-violent fast and prayer for the more than 2,400 children who had been separated from their families.

The fast kicked off last June with help from the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, and labor activist and co-founder of LUPE, Dolores Huerta, who will be in attendance Thursday for the event.

At the event, Valdez-Cox will be joined by roughly more than 30 LUPE members and staff, many of whom are leaders in the organization.

“Many of the leaders wanted to be part of (the event); especially older leaders that started way back with the United Farm Workers,” Valdez-Cox said. “…It was important for us to be here because the legacy that we have with the Kennedy family goes way back to when our founder, Cesar Chavez, was fasting back in the late 60s, when he had that 35-day fast for non-violence, so we remember those days.”

Also being recognized for their efforts in the Valley is a relatively new advocacy group, the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley.

Angry Tias and Abuelas are made up of eight core members and a handful of volunteers from the area, most from out of town and out of state. They’ve been active in providing services to immigrants at respite centers locally, and at the international bridges for about a year now.

Most recently, they’ve been providing food, water and basic hygienic products to Central American and Cuban immigrants living on the different bridges along the border.

Elizabeth Cavazos, one of the eight members that make up the group, said Wednesday morning during a phone interview that she and the other members are honored and humbled to have been recognized by the foundation.

Cavazos and the other seven members are all in Washington to accept the award Thursday and participate in other activities related to the event, including a trip to the Arlington National Cemetery.

Because the group, which formed in earnest during the separation policy last June, works in conjunction with other local advocacy groups, including Catholic Charities of the RGV, Cavazos said the group is accepting the award on behalf of those who helped bring attention to these immigration issues.

“There are so many groups in the Valley that are actually coordinating together to mitigate the immigration issues that are happening at the border,’ she said. “We absolutely would love to use this platform to raise up the other groups that are engaged in the same types of services that we are in … to raise up the Rio Grande Valley and to shed light on some of the issues that are happening in the Valley right now…”

She said that the foundation’s recognition despite its lack of established presence can be a lesson for others who would like to get involved in advocacy for vulnerable groups.

“There was a moment of disbelief, but I think part of the fact that we are so new, and we heeded the call, I think that speaks volumes that anyone can decide that there’s a need and can just go fill it,” Cavazos said. “I think part of us being recognized is sending that message to the community: Don’t wait around for an organization. If you see a need and recognize a gap in services, go fill it.”