Key Finding: 68% of Respondents Say They Suffer Racism In Their Daily Life
Discrimination is a humiliating part of everyday life for many Latinos in the South.
Life for Latinos — regardless of immigration status — is an experience where the most mundane chore becomes a burden and where you must constantly prove yourself innocent of violating immigration law. It's an experience where renting an apartment or renewing a license can become a never-ending task of providing identification — a task people of other races and ethnicities rarely face.
Then there's the hostility aimed at anyone who appears Latino — hostility ranging from disapproving looks to physical attacks. This experience is reflected in the SPLC survey findings. Sixty-eight percent of the Latinos surveyed reported encountering what they perceived as racism — from "looks" to "physical abuse" — on a regular basis. Two-thirds reported that they have been made to feel unwelcome by others in the community.
Sometimes this hostility can turn into violence. FBI statistics show that, nationwide, hate crimes against Latinos increased 40 percent from 2003 to 2007,1 a rise that has coincided with the increasingly ugly propaganda about Latino immigrants that has seeped into mainstream politics and media.
Hector Martinez, a church administrator of Iglesia de Guadalupe in Tennessee, attributed discrimination against Latinos to a region in the early stages of coping with a swift influx of immigrants. "Here in Nashville, we are where we were in California 50 years ago," said Martinez, who lived in California for many years.
Other studies have also documented the perception of discrimination among Latinos. In a 2008 Pew Hispanic Center survey, one in seven Latinos nationwide said they had trouble in the previous year finding or keeping a job because of their ethnicity. One in 10 reported the same about finding or keeping housing.2
In the SPLC survey, 70 percent said they have experienced racism in finding housing. Another 20 percent were "unsure."
While the nasty looks and bigoted comments reported in this survey cannot be stopped by laws, these findings suggest that further actions are necessary to protect Latinos in the South from illegal discrimination.
Rampant Housing Discrimination
Housing was the most significant source of discrimination complaints. Many of the stories recounted to SPLC researchers appear to indicate serious violations of the Fair Housing Act.
Most Latinos in the SPLC survey said they rent their residence instead of owning — a rate of 75 percent versus 20 percent.
The respondents described a variety of difficulties in obtaining decent housing and dealing with landlords. Baltazar, who lives in Charlotte, said immigrants face "intense racism" in finding housing. "It is very, very painful for us."
Some landlords check immigration status — but only for those perceived as Latino. Some take advantage of their tenants' vulnerable status by refusing to make repairs or by imposing illegal rent or utility increases. Some threaten to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if Latino immigrants complain about housing conditions.
"As soon as we show our face (to a landlord), they start asking for documents — and documents they never ask the Anglos for," one survey respondent told SPLC researchers.
A New Orleans immigrant advocate described how discrimination has a snowball effect. Since landlords know that immigrants are often victims of wage theft by their employers, they are wary of renting to immigrants because they may be cheated out of pay and unable to pay rent.
The desperation to find a place to live can be seen in the condition of the residences some immigrants call home.
"I have seen people living in places where even animals shouldn't live, because it is so difficult to find housing," a Mexican immigrant in New Orleans said. "I lived in a place with no hot water, no bathroom, with flies and bugs, and I paid $300 a month."
Landlord tenant laws are weak in much of the South, and there is little advocacy on behalf on immigrants related to Fair Housing Act issues. Housing advocates reported that, although discrimination is rampant, immigrants rarely bring cases to court because of the perceived risks of taking such action. One advocate told the SPLC that he was unable to assure immigrants that their immigration status would be kept confidential if a complaint were filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A review of the docket (in December 2008) of the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division reveals that it is involved in hundreds of lawsuits across the nation. However, not a single lawsuit concerns Fair Housing Act issues involving Latinos in the South, despite the fact the law protects even undocumented immigrants from discrimination.
In Greensboro, N.C., two Latinos said they endured apartments with roach and rat infestations, unsanitary carpets and walls, and broken windows. The conditions spurred the men to file a lawsuit alleging the apartment complex violated the city's Fair Housing Ordinance and discriminated against Latinos. The city of Greensboro joined the men in the lawsuit.3
But that suit is a rare exception.
"They (Latinos) don't complain," Yamile Walker, the Greensboro Human Relations Department's administrator, told the local newspaper. "It has to get to a very frustrating level for a Latino to come forward and say, 'I'm being mistreated for being a Latino.' So, we don't get the number of cases that I know are out there."4
Housing Ordinances Target Latinos
Local housing ordinances also are causing problems for many Latinos. Dozens of local governments have passed anti-immigrant ordinances in recent years. Many of these appear neutral on their face; that is, their language does not appear to target immigrants. For example, localities in Alabama have passed laws to limit the number of unrelated people who can live together. While these ordinances do not mention immigrants, the discussion and political rhetoric surrounding them leave little doubt that they are designed to target Latino immigrants.
When Prattville, Ala., adopted new housing rules, the city council president denied that it was about "driving illegal immigrants out of town."5 However, two months earlier the city's mayor told a meeting of the River Region Minutemen, an organization classified as a nativist extremist group by the SPLC, that housing ordinances are one way to deal with the "aftermath" of illegal immigration.6
"We have areas in the city where we have multiple folks living in a single-family residence," Prattville Mayor Jim Byard said at the 2007 meeting. "By and large, most of these residences are inhabited by immigrants — illegal or otherwise, I really don't know. We have an issue with multiple families, and what the city is doing to address that is we are defining more narrowly the definition of single-family in our subdivision regulations."7
The intent isn't lost on the public either. After the ordinance passed, a letter to the editor of a local newspaper praised the city for passing the ordinance to do "something to take care of the illegal alien problem in this state."8
One homeowner in Pelham, Ala., described to a reporter how such ordinances target the Latino community, even if the law doesn't mention race.
"I think this is race-based," Misty Gomez told The Birmingham (Ala.) News. "They are not going into white people's $350,000 homes and checking to see who is there. Since the U.S. can't pick on black people anymore, they have to pick on somebody, and now it's Hispanics."9
There are signs some Latinos are fighting housing discrimination. The Fair Housing Center of Northern Alabama has seen an increase in complaints filed by Latinos and by people with high-cost mortgages following a media campaign about predatory lending practices.10
Immigration Status Doesn't Matter
Latinos face discrimination regardless of their immigration status.
"The assumption is that every Latino possibly is undocumented," said Angeles Ortega-Moore, an immigrant advocate in North Carolina. "So it [discrimination] has spread over into the legal population. And people are having a hard time renewing their licenses or going to different places."
Efforts to crack down on illegal immigration in Beaufort County, N.C., reached a point where a county commissioner asked the health and social services departments to tally the number of clients with Spanish surnames to determine the number of undocumented immigrants using the services. That didn't happen, but the county ended up counting the number of people using interpreters at the health and social services departments to determine the number.11
"It's just discrimination," Cipriano Moreno, pastor of Alpha and Omega, a Latino Baptist church in Beaufort County, told a newspaper reporter. "They don't like Hispanics here. They think that all the Hispanics are here illegally, but they're not."12
Efforts in Beaufort County reached a point where there were reports that some social services, such as federally funded prenatal care for the poor, might be eliminated completely since attempts to exclude people would be illegal.
"When you're a pregnant lady sitting there, that's a personal problem," said County Commissioner Hood Richardson. "That's not a public problem."13
Richardson has twice referred to undocumented immigrants as "wetbacks" and has said he worries they will foster political and social unrest, The (Raleigh) News & Observer has reported.14
Maria Eugenia, a 51-year-old legal resident of Tennessee, has endured treatment that harkens back to the Jim Crow laws of the South. She applied for work through unemployment and temporary employment agencies — only to be forced to wait in Latino-only lines. "Americans come and enter at their own pace," she said. "Sometimes we wait for hours just to see if someone will come and choose us to work for them."
'Go Back to Mexico'
Janet, a Latina teen living in Charlotte, told SPLC researchers she endures taunts in school, even though she is a U.S. citizen.
"[T]hey'll be like, 'Oh well, you're just Mexican, go back to Mexico.' You know, 'Learn English,'" she said. "I am not even Mexican. I am very proud of my background but it bothers me, the stereotypes."
Ortega-Moore has seen the devastation wrought by the hostile atmosphere toward Latinos. "I can't tell you when I've seen so many suicides as I've seen here," he said. "I mean very young people — 18, 19 years old. Imagine every day … being bullied."
In a 2007 study by Durham County, N.C., 32 percent of the 46 Latino students surveyed in high schools said they had tried to commit suicide in the previous year, compared to 15 percent of other students.15
Discrimination, hostility and the isolation of immigrant families were cited as possible reasons for the higher rate.16
"I'm surprised it's that high, but I'm not surprised there's a higher suicide rate, because of the pressure placed on immigrant families," Hannah Gill, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The Herald-Sun in Durham.17
Not Welcome in Church
Discrimination can seep into every aspect of life. That was the case when Cristina, a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, sought out a church for her family. She attempted to attend a church's English service in Reidsville, a small town in southeast Georgia, but was told that she should consider the Spanish service held in a different building.
"The other church was in this really beat-up building, not as nice," she said.
Even though she explained that her children were more comfortable with the English service, she was told the service was not for her and that "Mexicanos" were not welcome in that church. "After a while, we just stopped going to church," she said.
Laura, a 41-year-old Honduran woman in New Orleans, described how something as mundane as a ride on a crowded streetcar can serve as a reminder of the hostility harbored against Latinos.
"When I bump into people, I often get a bad look and get pushed back," she said. "This is the hardest thing to deal with sometimes because it feels so hurtful."
Even though she is still a teen, Janet has seen the atmosphere worsen in North Carolina as the immigrant community has grown.
"[A]s more of us Latinos get here, then you know, the discrimination gets bigger, and it gets worse," she said. "And, like, a lot of people look at it like it's not even happening. They act like it's not there — when it really is."
1. See Hate Crime Statistics, 2003-2007, Federal Bureau of Investigation. The statistics do not break down hate crimes against Latinos by region.
2. Mark Hugo Lopez and Susan Minushkin. 2008 National Survey of Latinos: Hispanics See Their Situation in the U.S. Deteriorating; Oppose Key Immigration Enforcement Measures. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, September 2008, p. 9-10.
3. Jennifer Fernandez, "Renters Sue for Unfair Treatment," (Greensboro, N.C.) News and Record, Sept. 3, 2007.
5. Kenneth Mullinax, "Prattville Changes Housing Rules," Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, Nov. 7, 2007.
6. Layne Holley, "Mayor: Immigration Woes Reaching Local Level," Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, Sept. 14, 2007.
8. Nick Cognasi, "Push Officials on for [sic] Action on Immigration," Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, Jan. 30, 2008.
9. Kelli Hewett Taylor, "Housing Law Pits Safety vs. Ethnicity," The Birmingham (Ala.) News, Feb. 5, 2007.
10. Doug Abrahms, Andre Coe, "National Housing Discrimination Charges Up, City Charges Down," Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, Oct. 7, 2007.
11. Kristin Collins, "Beaufort County Wants to Stem Migrant Influx," The(Raleigh) News & Observer, May 25, 2008.
15. "Taking a Look at Societal Health," The (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun, April 17, 2009.
16. Monica Chen, "32 Percent of Latino Students Try Suicide," The (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun, Jan. 30, 2008.
Photo by Stacey Vaeth Gonzalez