Special Reports

North Texas immigrants aren’t here ‘just to survive but to thrive’

An Arlington mother who cleans houses is an undocumented worker whose fear of deportation is part of her everyday life.
An Arlington mother who cleans houses is an undocumented worker whose fear of deportation is part of her everyday life. jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

Immigrants in North Texas are united by their passion to live in America and refuse to let their voices be silenced.

While worried about President Donald Trump’s promise to crack down on illegal immigration and the looming “sanctuary cities” law in Texas, they want the people they live and work with to understand the important roles they play in our communities.

They build and clean our homes, pave our roads, educate our children, heal the sick and run successful businesses.

“That’s the narrative that has been lost,” said State Rep. Ramon Romero, Jr., D-Fort Worth, whose family is from the Mexican state of Zacatecas.

“America is a country of people who came here with a purpose and that purpose was not just to survive but to thrive,” Romero said.

Jacinto Ramos, a Fort Worth school board member with immigrant roots, said Tarrant County is attractive to immigrants because of jobs, adding that legal and undocumented workers form a huge portion of Tarrant County’s labor force.

“Our local economy would be crippled with a massive labor shortage and our quality of life would be impacted severely if these valued members of the economic powerhouse of North Texas were to leave,” Ramos said. “Politicians like to posture about making America ‘great again,’ but immigrants of all varieties, from dozens upon dozens of countries, are making America’s economy great — right now.”

Immigration issues continue to engage as a divisive flashpoint, whether on Capitol Hill, at dinner parties or waiting in line at taquerias.

In Texas, immigrants are especially concerned about Senate Bill 4, which allows police to question a person’s immigration status during traffic stops.

“You don’t know when it’s going to happen — when police or immigration is going to stop you,” said Hilda, an undocumented immigrant and mother of three who cleans houses for a living. The Star-Telegram is not publishing her full name to protect her identity.

“Anybody who is here undocumented is a priority,” said Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, a Dallas immigration attorney. She said immigration officers have been instructed to apply immigration law more strictly against any undocumented person they encounter.

“Everyone is a target,” she said.

‘This didn’t start with Trump’

Immigrants said they have endured an anti-immigrant mood that has escalated in the past year.

This sentiment can emerge in a remark by a customer who tells a clerk to go back “across the border,” or a new interpretation of immigration procedures. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly stated in The Washington Post that while his agency doesn’t do sweeps, roadblocks or raids, during “the course of an arrest” a bystander can be asked about immigration status and detained.

“I’m going after the people who have broken U.S. law, in addition to being in the United States illegally,” he said.

Edward T. Rincón, president of the Dallas-based research firm Rincón & Associates, said that although immigrants have become political scapegoats, discrimination against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is not new to Texas.

“This didn’t start with Trump,” Rincón said. “What Trump did is he made it acceptable.”

Hilda said she expects her community to be further targeted under SB4.

“Now you can’t go to work or go out,” she said.

SB4, better known as the sanctuary cities law, is scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1. It was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May during a video address on Facebook.

“Let’s be clear about something, we all support legal immigration,” Abbott said. “It helped to build America and Texas. Texas strongly supports the legal immigration that has been a part of our state from our very beginning, but legal immigration is different from harboring people who have committed dangerous crimes.”

The law is being challenged in court by several Texas cities, including Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. Fort Worth, which is more conservative than the state’s other largest cities, has quietly declined to join the lawsuit.

While Fort Worth city leaders have been mostly quiet about SB4, Mayor Betsy Price earlier this year made it clear that Fort Worth follows federal immigration laws and “is unequivocally not a sanctuary city.” Her comments came after a Facebook video, in which Fort Worth police officer Daniel Segura attempted to soothe immigrant fears, went viral.

‘Our diversity is a strength’

Tarrant County’s immigrant story unfolds with chapters on long ties with Mexico — where people fled revolution more than 100 years ago — and European workers who labored in meat packing. In recent years they have come from countries torn apart by civil wars, from Sudan to Syria.

They arrive as immigrants, students, workers with visas, workers with no status, refugees and asylees. Family, work, education and safety prompted many to make homes in cities like Fort Worth, Arlington and Euless.

“I believe our diversity is a strength and not a weakness,” said Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Court 5 Sergio De Leon, whose father immigrated from Mexico in the early 1950s. “We should embrace it and find ways to all work together. Our collective future depends on it.”

Kyle Walker, an associate professor of geography and director of TCU’s Center for Urban Studies, has a map of immigrant America showing clearly that Tarrant County is global.

Clusters of red dots — representing people from Mexico — fill sections of Fort Worth. Red dots also illustrate Mexican immigrants living along Interstate 30 to Arlington, where the dots overlap with light blue dots that represent South Asian immigrants. Along the county’s northeast border with Dallas County, blue dots are also prevalent and purple ones representing people from Sub-Saharan Africa emerge.

“The global influence of Tarrant County is significant,” said Walker, whose mapping aims to help decision makers better understand the needs for their communities.

About 4.4 million foreign-born people live in Texas, according to U.S. Census figures compiled by Texas State Demographer Lloyd B. Potter at the University of Texas at San Antonio. More than 301,000 foreign-born people call Tarrant County home, or about 16 percent of the county’s 1.9 million residents.

Vistasp Karbhari, the son of a civil engineer in India, is the president of the University of Texas at Arlington.

He said every immigrant’s journey is distinct, but they all seek the same result.

“We all come with a different background, we all come with different expectations, but we all have one thing in mind and that’s what makes the United States such a great place — that if you work hard, if you do all the things that you’re supposed to do and you aspire to be one of the best, this is a country that welcomes that,” Karbhari said.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1