El Paso

Project Arriba – How Tax Dollars Are Used For The Wealthy’s Public Policy

During the October 7, 2002, El Paso Commissioners Court meeting, a group, generally known by many in El Paso as EPISO, was present asking commissioners for $350,000 in tax dollars. Its representatives before county commissioners were several priests and nuns of the Catholic Church. The El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO) was asking for the money for training programs it sponsors. In the audience were people holding Project Arriba signs, a project under the auspices of EPISO. The Catholic Church, a non-tax paying entity, was leveraging tax dollars for their projects.

El Pasoans are generally aware of EPISO and its projects, including Project Arriba. But most are unaware of how tax dollars are used by these non-profits and who decides what projects to support with tax dollars and which ones to ignore. Because tax dollars are a finite amount, the decision to fund non-profits with tax dollars requires asking questions.

Saul David Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940. It is a 501c3 non-profit. There are about 65 IAF affiliates in the US and a few other countries. The San Antonio group, the oldest group, is called Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS). In El Paso, the name used is EPISO. The Catholic Church used to be the dominant force in EPISO, and still dominates it, but a new player has come in. Literature about the IAF networks focuses on the education system in this country, and the movement of the masses to recreate democracy. Ernesto Cortes, Jr., an IAF supporter wrote in 1994, “IAF organizations hold ‘actions’ – public dramas, with masses of ordinary people moving together on a particular issue, with a particular focus, and sometimes producing an unanticipated reaction.” Cortes wrote that IAF groups are organized in the following way, “COPS, like all IAF organizations, is primarily a federation of congregations, connected to institutions of faith and agitated by their traditions. In this context ‘faith’ does not mean a particular system of religious beliefs, but a more general affirmation that life has meaning…COPS also serve as ‘mini-universities.’”

Who are the organizers of these groups or “mini-universities”? Cortes, in his own words writes, “IAF leaders begin their development in one-on-one conversations with a skilled organizer…IAF organizers see themselves as teachers, mentors and agitators who constantly cultivate leadership for the organization.”

In the case of EPISO, the “agitators” and the “organizers” is the Roman Catholic Church through its priests and nuns. The 2002 commissioners meeting made this clear because it was the Church asking for the tax dollars, disguised as Project Arriba.

One of the tenets of COPS is “living by the Iron Rule – ‘COPS and the IAF have won their victories not by speaking for ordinary people but by teaching them how to speak, act, and engage in politics for themselves.” Thus, the question is, who is doing the teaching on how to speak and engage in politics? To what purpose? From the meeting before county commissioners on that December 7, 2002, it appeared to be the Church.

There exists a myth in America, that there is a separation of church and state. The myth extends out to the idea that non-profits are allowed to be exempt from taxes while all others pay, so long as they refrain from influencing politicians. They are allowed, under the law, to influence public agenda policies but not to advocate for one politician over another.

However, the thin line separating influencing the public agenda policy is so transparent that “influencing” quickly becomes engaging directly in politics, thus influencing the electorate’s decision on who to vote for.

EPISO, for all intents and purposes is a political action group shrouded under the mantel of “men and women of the cloth.” The Church, through EPISO seems to have boldly and brazenly stepped out of the realm of Church and crossed into the threshold of State, contrary to the laws separating church and state which are an underpinning of American democracy. And it uses tax dollars to do so.

EPISO, today is still known as EPISO but has added the tag of Border Interfaith to its brand as other religions joined in and as the border became a national theme. Among its original platform, includes living wage, immigration and job retraining programs, among others. Project Arriba is the job retraining arm of EPISO.

On September 29, 2002, Bishop Armando X. Ochoa wrote a guest column in the El Paso Times. In it he wrote, “I urge the County in its deliberations to continue to invest in Project Arriba. It is imperative that a local entity attend to the welfare of this community and assist our most vulnerable.” The group was asking county commissioners to approve $500,000 for Project Arriba.

At the time that Project Arriba, a non-tax paying non-profit under the auspices of EPISO, was asking for tax dollars, it had a board where four out of the nine board members were Catholic priests. They included, co-Chairman Rev. Ed Roden-Lucero, pastor of San Juan Diego, Rev. James Hall, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Rev. Ken Ducre, pastor of All Saints and Rev. John Stowe, pastor of Mt. Carmel.

Aside from the tax money already supporting El Paso Community College which takes Project Arriba students, the money the County was being asked to pitch in was in addition to the El Paso Empowerment Zone who had approved a second year of funding to Project Arriba in the amount of $250,000. In total, the Catholic Church was asking the taxpayers of El Paso to pay over $750,000 for job training programs.

In the 2000s, EPISO was often accused of forcing political candidates to support its programs through their accountability sessions. The accountability sessions require, to this day, political candidates to answer “yes” or “no” on whether they support a slate of issues that EPISO wants. Many of them require tax dollar commitments to accomplish. The public commitments, in essence, publicly commits the candidate to support an EPISO issue when it comes before them if they are elected. Clearly buying EPISO votes with El Paso tax dollars.

The Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness

On April 29, 2014, the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness opened its doors. Its objective is “to serve as a centralized, regional depository of data, information, and knowledge about the economy and institutions” in what they have dubbed the Paso del Norte region, which includes El Paso and Cd. Juárez. The UTEP-based institute is funded by the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation. The Hunt thinktank works under the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) producing economic reports used to support public policy agendas. A recent economic outlook for El Paso was produced by the Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness. (It has several projects it supports, including Project Arriba.

According to Project Arriba’s audited financial statements ending December 31, 2020, the non-profit received a Paycheck Protection Loan (PPP) loan for $96,401, in addition to $1,724,184 in donations, of which $662,058 were unrestricted, meaning that the donations could be spent on programs unrestricted by conditions limiting how they are spent.

Among Projects Arriba’s financial donors in 2020 included the City of El Paso Impact Fund in the amount of $91,631, the County of El Paso for $18,104 and $187,500 from the Hunt Family Foundation, payable in five equal annual payments, (2021-2024).

According to the Hunt Foundation’s annual financial report for 2019, it has committed over $3 million to 103 organizations of which about 86% are in the Paso del Norte (El Paso-Juárez) region. Since 1997, the Hunt Foundation has committed over $111 million. Its biggest recipient is CREEED at almost $2 million.

Charitable organizations are used by the elite for “elite causes” because of how the American charitable laws provide the wealthy with a legal mechanism to influence public policy.

Moreover, the use of enterprise institutes within universities like UTEP’s Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness allows the wealthy to generate reports that drives public policy.

Non-profits like Project Arriba are not only an extension of influencing public policy through its accountability sessions for candidates, but its use of Hunt funding demonstrates that a Hunt bias in public policy is part of Project Arriba’s mission.

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