Antonella Packard was walking around University Place mall in Orem with a friend when a stranger abruptly interrupted their conversation. Packard, who is originally from Honduras, was speaking to her friend in Spanish, something the stranger took offense to. Packard was admonished that she should speak English, since she is in America.
Packard said she found the 2018 incident troubling and was surprised “that people feel like they can say things like that to you.”
“If somebody that I know speaks Spanish as a native language, why am I going to be speaking to them in English?” Packard asked.
The Saratoga Springs resident has lived in Utah for nearly three decades and said she has never been chastised for speaking Spanish. Packard credits what she sees as increased hostility towards Latinos to the election of President Donald Trump, who characterized Mexican immigrants as “rapists” who bring “a lot of problems” to the United States when he launched his presidency campaign at Trump Tower in New York City in June 2015.
“When you’re saying and spewing this kind of thing, and tweeting these kind(s) of things, it doesn’t create a good feeling towards people that perhaps may look like what you think a criminal may look like,” Packard said, who until recently was the state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s oldest Latino rights organization.
Since Trump’s election in 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice has implemented tough-on-immigration policies that a number of Latino Utahns say make Central American immigrants — both with citizenship and without — feel unsafe and unwelcome.
In May 2018, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in San Diego that children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border would be separated from their parents pending resolution of their immigration case, a policy that was widely condemned by human rights advocates, including United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, The New York Times reported. On June 27, 2018, a U.S. District judge in San Diego ordered that all families separated at the border be reunited in 30 days, according to USA Today.
A few months later, in November 2018, Trump signed a presidential proclamation “addressing mass migration through the southern border” denying asylum to immigrants who enter the country without legal permission. Ten days later, a U.S. district court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the asylum proclamation.
On Dec. 20, 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that individuals attempting to enter the country without proper documents could be deported to Mexico while waiting for immigration proceedings, which the department described as a “historic action to confront illegal immigration.”
‘My community is
constantly under attack’
Dulce Maria Horn, a 17-year-old senior at Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, has been an immigrant rights activist since she was 2 years old. An immigrant from Malacatán, Guatemala, Horn attended her first immigrant rights rally with her father in protest of then-President George W. Bush, an event she credits as being “what really launched (her) political activism career.”
Horn lived through the administration of President Barack Obama, who gained the nickname “deporter in chief” among immigrant activists for his deportation record.
But neither of these presidential administrations, Horn said, made her feel how the present one does.
“As an immigrant,” Horn said, “I have never felt more attacked and … constantly under attack that I have with the current administration. Under the Obama administration, I never felt that I was under constant attack ... . As if, every single day, I had a weight on my shoulders, I had something I needed to tackle … which is the feeling that I get now.”
Horn recalls earlier this year when the president tweeted that “big Deportation” operations would be carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) throughout the country.
While no ICE raids were carried out in Utah, Horn said the announcement sent widespread panic through the state’s immigrant community.
Horn, who works as a community engagement and advocacy intern with Comunidades Unidas, a West Valley City-based immigrant rights group, said she “had more calls and more texts (and) more messages over (the) confusion and the fear” that Trump’s tweet caused than she ever had.
“The real harm that came to my community was the mass panic and fear it causes,” Horn said. “My community is constantly under attack.”
Not all Latinos in Utah, or in the country, feel animosity towards the Trump administration.
Latinos For Trump, a national organization aimed at reelecting the president, says on its website that four more years of Trump “means more jobs, better education for our kids, and freedom from big government.”
Whether someone supports Trump “depends (on) what (their) reality is and what (their) political affiliation happens to be,” Packard said, adding that many Republican Latinos in the southern and northern parts of the state are satisfied with the president’s job performance.
Still, it is the case that Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric have made many Latinos and immigrants in the state feel “very uncomfortable,” said Packard, who herself is a Republican.
Impact on local
Since its founding in 1991, the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has helped Latino business owners in Utah by offering resources aimed to increase financial literacy and business education among the Hispanic population.
There are currently about 21,000 businesses in the state whose owners identified as Hispanic when they registered with the Utah Department of Commerce, according to Alex Guzman, president of Utah’s Hispanic chamber. An additional thousand businesses have owners with common Hispanic surnames but who did not identify as Hispanic when they registered, Guzman said.
Guzman estimates that these 21,000 businesses, which are mainly in the construction, food, cleaning and professional service sectors, generate about $50 million a month, or $600 million annually, in revenue for the state’s economy.
And revenue has increased in recent years, something Guzman credits to the state’s growing Latino population and the fact that Hispanics, generally, retire later and start working at a younger age than other demographics.
Guzman added that younger generations of Latinos are attending college and working in higher-paying industries than their parents or grandparents, which “helps them to bring even more money to their pockets.”
“The numbers are looking good in terms of the Hispanic contribution to the local economy,” Guzman said. “We see a very vibrant Hispanic community right now.”
Even so, the state’s Hispanic economy has been impacted by federal immigration policies.
Because these policies are “much more strict today” and work permit quotas have not increased, many Latino workers have temporarily moved back to their countries of origin, Guzman said. Others have stayed in Utah, but lay low because “they are afraid to break the rules” and get caught “under the lens of the system.”
The result, Guzman said, is a “shortage of workers” in the construction, cleaning and food service industries, among others. “(These are) very difficult times to find labor,” he said.
Guzman said that national headlines about immigrant families being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border have had a negative impact on Latino Utahns.
“That is hitting our hearts, our feelings, our emotions,” he said.
Staying ‘mentally healthy’
More than fiscally, some Latino Utahns say their communities have been hit hard psychologically.
Dirty looks. Mean-spirited comments. These are things that Guzman said Latinos in the state are learning to deal with on a somewhat regular basis.
While most Utahns are supportive of and kind to the Latino community, “there are some people who are not necessarily in favor of immigrants,” said Guzman.
Packard of the League of United Latin American Citizens said her organization received word of instances in Salt Lake Valley where Latino children were bullied for their skin color. When the Latin American league tried to get more information from parents, they refused to give it.
“And you know why they refused. They don’t want to call attention to themselves,” Packard said. “And these are individuals that actually have legal status in this country.”
In July 2018, Jerred Loftus of Eagle Mountain was arrested for allegedly impersonating a police officer and threatening to kill a Latino man, Fox 13 reported. Loftus allegedly told the man “to get out of his country, called him an immigrant and so forth,” according to Saratoga Springs police Sgt. Shane Taylor.
In December 2018, 50-year-old Alan Covington allegedly walked into a Salt Lake City tire shop and screamed “I want to kill a Mexican” before assaulting Luis Gustavo Lopez, 18, and his father, Jose Lopez, 51, with a metal pole, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Federal prosecutors eventually charged Covington with a hate crime after Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Utah’s hate crime statute is “really not enforceable” and therefore couldn’t be applied in this case.
While such instances of violence are few and far between, immigrant rights activist Horn said that hostility towards Latinos is more than “just an emotional attack.”
“This is an attack … that really jeopardizes our security in this nation,” Horn said, referring to the community’s widespread fear of arrest or deportation.
One way of fighting back, Horn said, is by “educating people on their immigration rights,” such as the right to remain silent or the right to seek legal representation.
Another crucial step is “making sure that we ourselves are mentally healthy,” said Horn.
“In the Latinx community, mental health and mental illness are stigmatized in a way in which we are not brought up to ask for support,” the teenage activist said.
In recent years, though, Dulce said the Latino community has been coming to terms with the idea that asking for help “is OK.”
When Packard and her friend were told that they shouldn’t be speaking Spanish in the U.S., she was shocked. For one, it seemed inappropriate for a stranger to say that, but for another, in Packard’s experience, most Utahns have welcomed cultural diversity.
“Utah is friendlier than many other states,” Packard said. “If anybody knows about actually trying to flee an area … where your life is threatened, that’d be (people in) Utah.”
And progress is being made, Packard said, noting that, despite policy and rhetoric at the national level, more Latinos and people of color are running for office and getting elected.
State Sen. Luz Escamilla, who ran for Salt Lake City mayor this year but was ultimately defeated, said that state legislators proposed a bill in 2011 asking for a waiver from the federal government so Utah could provide its own work permits to immigrants. While House Bill 116 passed both chambers and made it off the governor’s desk, Escamilla said the waiver was never granted.
But its passing “sent a message about what Utah is and what our values are,” Escamilla said.
“This is still a very strong and beautiful state to live as immigrants,” Guzman said.