In the wake of the forced separation of families along the Texas-Mexico border, groups serving undocumented residents of Hays County believe the news has left people scared and untrusting.
It is hard to even guess how many Hays County residents are undocumented, said Melissa Rodriguez, director of community partnerships at the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center (HCWC), as most organizations do not inquire about a client’s immigration status, to protect their privacy.
“Just in general, there’s been a misperception among domestic violence victims that think we report to law enforcement if they come to us. We don’t. They’re adults, they report if they make that decision,” Rodriguez said.
Layer the undocumented status on top of that misperception, and HCWC staff constantly have to reassure clients they will not be reported to authorities for being undocumented, she said.
“Which is not something we’ve had to prove above and beyond in the past,” Rodriguez said. “Now, it’s a point staff feel compelled to make clear. It’s definitely more of a talking point now.”
Even if families with undocumented members in Hays County have not been directly affected by forced separations at the border, current events have caused residents to be more cautious of anyone they do not know, said community activist Karen Muñoz.
Muñoz is the co-founder of a group called Mano Amiga that serves the immigrant communities in San Marcos and the surrounding areas, and provides educational resources for them and their families.
“A lot of undocumented people are rightfully scared of institutions generally,” Muñoz said. “It’s easy to assume that agencies like the women’s center or Mano Amiga would report to police if you’re not on the inside of the group, but that’s not the case. It’s very difficult to communicate we don’t work with police.”
Undocumented people living in the United States are vulnerable in ways an American-born citizen is not, Rodriguez said.
“Despite a common misperception, they’re not getting all this welfare and government assistance. They’re not eligible. That’s not happening. An undocumented person has more barriers in place that keeps them from getting help,” Rodriguez said.
Even something as simple as applying for an apartment or opening a bank account can be a major hurdle for an undocumented person, Muñoz said.
If someone with their papers runs a stop sign, they could have to pay a fine, Muñoz said. For an undocumented person, it could mean being detained, separated from their family or possible deportation.
“It’s great that people are upset about families being separated at the border, it’s important we’re upset about that,” Muñoz said. “But in Hays County and across the country, we’re seeing families also separated because of traffic stops.”
Since Mano Amiga began in February 2017, at least four Hays County residents have been detained as a result of traffic stops, she said.
“If we’re only upset about the border, I don’t think we’re doing enough,” Muñoz said.