How Houston Has Become the Most Diverse Place in America

Brittany Mejia, LA Times, May 9, 2017

The  boys sprint in white and yellow uniforms down the green turf, grunting and sweating as the coach shouts from the sidelines. “Búscalo, búscalo,” he yells in Spanish, urging the players to sprint for the ball.

Umusitari!” comes a voice on the sidelines — run down the line — from Biganiro Espoir, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Margaret Long Wisdom High School soccer team hails from Central America, Mexico, Africa and points between. Its bench hums with Spanish, Kinyarwanda, Swahili and often English. But its real unifying language — soccer, played hard — is universal.

The high school is in southwest Houston, a city whose stunning growth and high-volume immigration have turned it into the most racially and ethnically diverse major metropolis in the country, surpassing New York in 2010.

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Houston — with a black, Democratic mayor and a powerfully pro-immigrant population — has potentially become one of the battlefronts in Texas over the city’s “don’t ask” ‘sanctuary policy,’ which prohibits police from inquiring about the immigration status of a person who hasn’t been arrested.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has led an aggressive charge to end such policies, and on Sunday signed a bill to punish so-called sanctuary cities.

Under the new law, set to take effect Sept. 1, local law enforcement officers are allowed to ask people about their immigration status during a lawful detention, such as a routine traffic stop. Local entities that prohibit enforcement of immigration laws could be fined up to $25,500 a day.

The sanctuary issue has roiled Texas, which has the country’s longest border with Mexico and an estimated 1.5 million immigrants who are in the country illegally. Much of the debate has focused on liberal islands such as Austin, where the governor has blocked $1.5 million in funding over sanctuary policies. In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner has balked at ordering his police officers to take on the role of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in carrying out immigration laws.

“What I’ve consistently said is that we will obey federal and state laws as long as those federal and state laws are consistent with the United States Supreme Court,” Turner said in a March interview, “and consistent with the United States Constitution.”

The story of how his city turned from a town of oil industry roughnecks and white blue-collar workers into a major political centrifuge for immigration reform, demographic analysts say, is nothing less than the story of the American city of the future.

Houston boomed through the mid-20th century, thanks to the oil bonanza, and most of those who came to get rich were white. Large numbers of Vietnamese refugees began arriving in the 1970s, and after an oil collapse in 1982, they were followed by an influx of Latinos driven by cheap housing and employment opportunities. Whites, meanwhile, started drifting out.

The multi-ethnic boom has occurred deep in the heart of a state that has often seemed to regard conservatism, and Texas identity, as an element of religion.

The state’s Republican leadership has helped lead the fight this year not only on sanctuary cities, but to defend President Trump’s order on border security and immigration enforcement. Texas went to court in 2015 to successfully block expanded deportation protections for young “Dreamers” and their parents who brought them here illegally.

Yet demographic experts say the Houston metro area, home to the third-largest population of undocumented immigrants in the country — behind New York and Los Angeles — is a roadmap to what U.S. cities will look like in the coming decades as whites learn to live as minorities in the American heartland.

Census projections have opened a window into the America of 2050, “and it’s Houston today,” said Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University.

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One street tells the traditions of several continents.

Along Hillcroft Avenue, in the Mahatma Gandhi District, Indian restaurants share space in a plaza with Consultorio Medico Hispano — a health clinic — and Crystal Nightclub, a Latino dance club that draws an LGBTQ crowd.

Further down the street, Sweet Factory, which sells pastries from the Middle East, edges up to a store that helps immigrants ship boxes home to relatives in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea shop at a flea market where the vendors primarily speak Spanish.

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In 1970, about 62% of Houston’s population was white. By 2010, that had shrunk to 25.6%. Over the same period, the Latino population grew from 10.6% to about 44%.

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From 2000 through 2013, the Houston metropolitan area’s immigrant population grew at nearly twice the national rate.

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And it’s only going to become more pronounced. In Harris County, of which Houston is the county seat, 51% of all those under the age of 20 are Latinos, and 19% are African American.

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Turner’s face smiles down from posters across the city that feature the word “welcome” in 32 languages.

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When the Trump administration threatened to withhold federal funding to cities that don’t cooperate in enforcing immigration laws, the mayor had a quick response:

“I know there are a lot of families and children who are afraid and worried right now about what might happen to them. I want them to know that Houston is, and always has been, a welcoming city, where we value and appreciate diversity,” Turner said in a statement. “HPD is not the Immigration and Naturalization Service. We don’t profile, and we are not going to start profiling people to determine whether they are here illegally.”

He admits his words may buck the prevailing headwinds in a state where authorities made it difficult for immigrants in the country illegally to get birth certificates for their U.S.-born children.

“Do we find ways to get along? Yeah. Do we disagree in our philosophy? Yeah,” Turner said. “But we live in a very changing, fluid, dynamic society and Texas is no different.”

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Editor’s note: Left unsaid in this article is that Houston has, by far, the highest violent crime rate of any city in Texas.

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