Past struggles spark major changes in the city of Manassas
|Video by Rayquan Taylor and Story by Meghan Puryear|
Manassas is a small, yet growing city in Virginia that has experienced a lot of change over the years. This makes Hispanics the largest represented minority in the predominantly white city. Manassas is a small with a population around 30 thousand, but the Hispanic community has doubled in the last decade alone, and it now makes up a third of the population. Thus, as the Hispanic influence has grown, many services and businesses have begun to cater to Spanish speakers.
Osvaldo Mercado sat in his glass office in Union Hispana Multi-services LLC, and repeatedly asked me “Why are we not having this conversation in Spanish?” To which I would reply that my Spanish skills are not very strong, and that I would be more comfortable doing the interview in English.
Mercado was clearly disappointed as he shook his head and explained, “Americans don’t realize that Spanish will soon be the No. 1 language. We all need to learn Spanish to co-exist.”
According to the 2014 Manassas Key Demographics, almost 30 percent of all Manassas residents speak Spanish; however, over 62 percent of residents only speak English. With more than 37 million speakers, the Pew Research Center says that Spanish is by far the most spoken non-English language in the U.S. today among people 5 and up. It is also one of the fastest-growing languages with the number of speakers up 233 percent since just 1980.
Mercado may just have a point. Working as the CEO, Mercado runs a business to provide legal, document, and tax services to Spanish-speaking people and immigrants in the area. In 2008 business picked up greatly when police started cracking down on immigration.
“They could suspect you for any minor thing and the police were able to ask for your legal status. The community took it like they wanted to get rid of Hispanics in the county by doing that.” The increase in customers seeking help with documentation forced him to hire a lot more employees.
Employee Jessica Argueta explained that while growing up in the area, she didn’t have to deal with too many issues regarding race. Her high school let Spanish students have a cultural day where they brought food and explained cultural traditions. But not everyone in Manassas was interested in these forms of intercultural awareness.
A 2007 newsletter by grassroots organization “Help Save Manassas” said, “These border crashers have contributed to rising crime rates, increasing burdens on our schools, hospitals, and public services, and the very destruction of the American culture.”
Argueta feels that “no matter where you go in this world, there will be ignorant people who act with hate.” She says that discrimination is less present today than it was.
“Two years ago I would’ve gotten dirty looks, my friends would tell me how they got insulted by someone. But nowadays people have come to accept us a little more. I think tensions are always going to be there because some people are just like that I guess, but I personally think its lowered,” said Argueta.
Argueta explained that they provide service to families all over Manassas, but that there is only so much she can do. Although they are in multi-services, Arguenta explains that many of these people need legal help, and that they usually get referred to an immigration lawyer.
Immigration lawyer Lisa Johnson-Firth of Immigrants First, PLLC said “the policies put in place in 2008 and 2009 were the real contingent. Groups really sprang out of nowhere, like ‘Help Save Manassas’ was one of these groups. We had a tremendous outpouring of clients and that’s actually why we started the law firm in Manassas.”
Firth further explained how with Prince William County now being 30 percent foreign born, a lot of those people are first generation. In many ways she says its been positive, “we wouldn’t have our new homes and roads that we have without the Hispanic population because they’ve been the seat of the labor force and new businesses coming up in this area. But to overlook the fact there’s been cultural tensions would be remiss.”
Firth went on to explain how the majority of her clients tend to be undocumented immigrants. Many of the cases she deals with are immigrants who have been apprehended by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In 2007, Corey Stewart was elected chairman of the Prince William Board of County supervisors and a plan was set into motion to get rid of as many undocumented immigrants as possible. Local law enforcement was allowed to ask people their citizenship status without having suspicion or probable cause to stop the individual.
According to National Geographic, the law was amended a year later making it so that a person would have to be arrested before state and local law enforcement officers could enforce the federal immigration law. This resulted in a high number of immigrants being turned over to customs officials by local police.
Firth describes how the Prince William jail, just three miles up the road is still a 287 GE jail, which means they have a memorandum of cooperation with ICE. They have ICE officers on sight to assess the legal status of a person.
“So if you spend one night in that jail, you’re going to be interviewed by ICE and if you’re out of status, you’re going to be put in removal proceedings,” said Firth.
She went on to explain how this is unlike Fairfax, Arlington, or D.C. where that doesn’t happen to the same extent because they don’t keep ICE officers in the jail. Although it is strict, Firth explains that ICE has a legal right to be there.
Fellow lawyer Alexandra Ribe came to America as an immigrant herself and she explained that this pushed her to study immigration law. Ribe decided to come to Manassas “because that’s where the need is in our type of work, we deal with a lot of undocumented people who really need help.” She said that in many countries people must flee for their lives.
“They all have different kinds of issues like if you’re from Central America gangs are the biggest issues. Here it has given me perspective on how much people are willing to risk to come to the United States,” said Ribe.
Manassas market master Ron Taylor believes that the increasing Hispanic community has been good for the community.
“They’ve brought a lot of different culture to the community, that makes the community a lot more diverse. I’ve learned a lot by being around them about how they live in their culture that I didn’t know before,” said Taylor.
Taylor is in charge of choosing the vendors for the fresh market each week, and he believes that the diversity of products has actually increased turnout at the market. Overall, he’s had clashes over some vendors being represented at the market; however, he plans to stand by whom he chooses and to remain fair in representing all cultures at the farm stands.
“Some people here have negative things to say about them, but you’re going to find that anywhere about anybody. Anybody that’s different from what they’re used to…for awhile they’re going to be a little skeptical of them, or they’re going to have negative remarks,” said Taylor.
True to Taylor’s word, even with such positive change, not everyone is ready to talk about accepting Hispanics into the community.
Neighborhood services coordinator Christen Zenich refused to speak in-depth on the subject, and the fellow city employees she recommended could somehow never be reached.
However, Zenich did state that “The city had to pay five million dollars, or something like that, it was quite large. So for the city of Manassas it is a very touchy subject. So you can find that in court records, for how that all fell apart. And how the Hispanic population fought back and how they came together to fight…what they felt was racism.
In 2007, the Equal Rights Center and eight Hispanic individuals filed a lawsuit against the City of Manassas, Virginia and Manassas City Public Schools, alleging that the City and its school system had “engaged in a systematic effort to target, discriminate against, and evict the City’s Hispanic residents according to the Equal Rights Center Website. It further alleged that MCPS had “violated the Constitution, the Federal Fair Housing Act, and federal and state civil rights laws by secretly disclosing confidential student record to the City to target Hispanic families for discriminatory zoning actions.”
The City claimed at the time that the Residential Overcrowding Code Enforcement was implemented to prevent “overcrowding.” Yet, it was believed that this was intended to reduce the Hispanic population in Manassas, as 92 percent of all searched homes were Hispanic owned or occupied. At this time in 2004 only 15 percent of Manassas was Hispanic. Additionally, it was revealed that 52 student records were disclosed to the City by public schools, without required parental consent.
The Manassas and Manassas City Schools and School Board were found guilty, and had to pay the plaintiffs and non-profit Housing Opportunities Made Equal. They were also forced to hire a housing advocate position. Also, “the city had to adhere provide fair housing training to its community development, public works, and family services employees within six months,” and provide “outreach and education efforts in regards to zoning issues in both English and Spanish,” while adhering to residential inspection procedure, according to the Equal Rights Center.
Overall, although the community has had drastic acceptance and change since the notorious lawsuit, there are still intense procedures and regulations in regards to the Hispanic community in the city of Manassas. With an ever-growing population of residents, and Spanish speakers in the community more resources are becoming available to advance their rights. Manassas has evolved greatly according to residents in just the past two years, but it has a long way to go before it reaches equality for all.