Before and After Election, Houston Immigrants Face Discrimination

In an effort to stem the national wave of reports of racist discrimination and harassment following Donald Trump's election last month, Houston's St. Paul's Episcopal Church – also known as San Pablo – held a “peace rally” last Friday. Attendees passed around sweets and hot chocolate. Bracelets that read “Pray 4 Police” were handed out. People sang songs and spoke in Spanish and English about the need for peace and trust.

The goal of the peace rally, explained Reverend Ed Gomez, was to “raise a narrative that is not the violent, aggressive narrative that we've been hearing.” That violence and aggression has even happened in Houston, as members of Gomez's largely Hispanic congregation say that they've experienced discrimination here.

Shortly after Trump's surprise victory, Jorge Rodriguez – an undocumented immigrant from Mexico – was working at a flea market with a group of other Mexicans. They were in the parking lot loading up the day's wares into their cars, he said, when a white man in a pick-up drove by them.

“This is Trump's country,” Jorge recalled the man shouting at them. “This is Trump's town.”

Nothing like that had ever happened to him before, Jorge said, especially not in a city as diverse as Houston, where he's lived for 15 years. “[We] all looked at each other and [we] all were like taken aback, like shocked, and felt saddened,” he explained, adding, “We're worried because we don't know what's going to happen.”

Jorge's job also often takes him to small towns outside of Houston, where he usually tries not to make eye contact for fear of offending anybody. Since Trump won the election, Rodriguez has started avoiding people's eyes in Houston too.

Gomez said he was told that a crew of Hispanic workers were recently doing yard work in front of St. Paul's when they too were shouted at from a passing car. “Again, they were saying, you know, 'Get out of here,' waving bye at them.”

The workers got scared and debated whether they should go inside, Gomez said. He understands why. “Somebody yells at you and, you know, tells you, 'You're gonna be gone.' What does that mean?”

Discrimination seems to be on the rise across the country following Trump's election: Ten days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center found nearly 900 reports of “hate incidents,” including almost 60 in Texas. Last week in the Galleria area, residents at a gated apartment complex found a racist flier, which bore swastikas and warned “all Mexicans, Arabs and non-American 'people'” to “leave our country now or you will be sent back where you came from like the animals you are,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

But not everybody at the peace rally felt that the election has yet had an impact on their lives. “When you're undocumented, you live like that anyways already… When I came here, I knew I was undocumented. So it's not like somebody changed the rules all of the sudden,” said Carlos Muñiz, as Gomez translated. Muñiz, who is also a Mexican immigrant, has lived in Houston for more than a decade. Regardless of who's in the White House, he said, the constant need to look over your shoulder is a fact of life for all undocumented immigrants.

A few years ago, when Muñiz's two now-teenage daughters were about eight and nine years old, he and his wife took them to dinner in a car that lacked its front license plate, Muñiz said. A police officer pulled them over and asked for his license and insurance. Muñiz had insurance, but no license. The cop told him to get out of his car.

“They banged [me] into the glass of the door in front of the daughters, who were terrified,” Muñiz recalled. “And [my] wife was very afraid… Another squad car came, and then another one, and another one.” Apparently, Muñiz shared a name with a man that U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement were looking for. The officers asked if Muñiz he had been to El Paso and if he had any tattoos. Muñiz said no, telling the police to check if they didn't believe him.

So, on the side of the road, the officers stripped him down to just his underwear, Muñiz said. “I wasn't afraid for me, because I didn't do anything, nada. I don't do drugs, I didn't work in El Paso, I don't have any tattoos. I'm not that person,” he said. He went on, “But the way that they were treating [me] and embarrassed [me] and took [my] clothes in front of [my] daughters – and they were terrified, crying – is what gave [me] real fury inside, real rage.”

After they found nothing, the officers only wrote him up a ticket. When Muñiz went to court for the ticket, he said, the cop never showed up. Muñiz ended up just paying the fine. He eventually stopped being angry, but he still stays vigilant whenever he drives.

Both Rodriguez and Muñiz do worry about what might happen to their children, some of whom have lived in the United States for most of their lives. Rodriguez's son might lose his ability to keep working as a nurse. Muñiz's daughters may not be able to go to college. While Rodriguez is older and can adapt if he has to leave, Rodriguez said, the United States is all his son knows.

But for now, Muñiz said, whatever happens and whoever is president, he just plans to remain careful. “God wants me here. And I'm here for a reason and I want to be here till I'm old and die.”

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Carter is the Houston Press fellow. A Seattle native, she graduated from Northwestern University and also has written for Elle, Los Angeles magazine and Ms. Magazine.
Contact: Carter Sherman