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'Go back to your country': Immigrants report a wave of insults and slurs

Univision has received dozens of reports from readers and viewers. Experts say people feel emboldened by President Trump’s openly anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy.
22 Feb 2017 – 06:19 PM EST
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Anti-immigrant protest in California Crédito: Getty

Carlos Hernandez usually spends Saturdays at an outdoor flea market in Middletown, Pennsylvania, where he sells mobile phone accessories. But on Feb. 4, he closed up shop and went home after just two hours, around 10 a.m., after a customer allegedly lashed out at him with racist insults and threats.

“He said to me ‘you are a terrorist,’ ‘you need to go back to your country,’ ‘you shouldn’t be here,’” Hernandez, 39, told Univision. He says the incident occurred in the outdoor area of Saturday’s Market, a long-standing weekly flea market in rural southern Pennsylvania, near Lancaster.

Hernandez, a father of seven, was born in Honduras and has been in the United States legally for nearly 20 years. He has been selling goods at the informal outdoor market off-and-on for seven years, and says he’d never had a problem until now.

He told Univision that a number of nearby customers told him not to pay attention to the man, who was white. Hernandez’s friend and fellow seller, Luis, tried to hide for fear the man would direct similar insults at him.

Hernandez says he did not respond, and did not report the incident to police or to market security. But he admits he was deeply troubled. “I felt really bad,” he says. “I felt destroyed inside. I had to leave.”

Univision contacted a spokesman from Saturday’s Market, who answered some questions but then grew testy and hung up.

Hernandez’s is one of dozens of similar reports that Univision has received through Documenting Hate, a project that is tracking bias incidents and hate crimes around the country since the presidential election. Of more than 40 incidents reported by Univision readers and viewers, the majority involve slurs that targeted an individual for speaking Spanish or being Latino, and at least 10 involved someone telling the person to “go back to your country.” Univision has been unable to verify most of these reports, because they occurred as stand-alone incidents without recorded evidence or witnesses.

The numbers follow a national trend. The Southern Poverty Law Center collected 1,372 reported bias incidents between Nov. 9 and Feb. 7. Of them, anti-immigrant incidents are the most reported, at 346 since the election.

“We are seeing a real rash of fear and hatred directed at immigrants in general,” says SPLC Senior Fellow Mark Potok. Muslim immigrants and Latino immigrants have been the two most targeted groups, he says.

Potok says President Trump’s public statements, both throughout the campaign and post-election, have undoubtedly translated into “hate and violence against those minorities.”

“People see it as permission given from our leaders. People think ‘If Trump says Mexican immigrants are bad, they really must be.’”

While experts are troubled by the current rash of hate, they point out this is not a new phenomenon in the United States.

Waves of anti-immigrant agitation can be traced back to as early as the 1830s, when Irish Catholic immigrants inspired the nation’s first serious bout of nativism, says Annelise Orleck, a Professor of History at Dartmouth College. By the end of the 19th century, the arrival of millions of Europeans led to another wave of intense violence and xenophobia.

The 1920s saw the first-ever substantial legislation passed in the U.S. to restrict and vet immigrants. Anti-immigrant attitudes grew again in the 1990s alongside the passage of California’s Prop. 187, which sought to deny undocumented immigrants social services, healthcare and education.

The hateful incidents being reported across the country now are “the backlash just like it was back then to a sense of change,” Orleck says. “This is not new. It’s just the 21st century version.”

Last week, the SPLC released its annual census of hate groups and other extremist organizations, which showed the number of hate groups in the United States rose for a second year in a row in 2016. According to the SPLC, anti-immigrant hate groups are the “most extreme of the hundreds of nativist and vigilante groups that have proliferated since the late 1990s.”

Among the reports sent to Univision through Documenting Hate are the following:

From Frankfort, Kentucky:

“I was driving my car and at a red light a car stopped next to me … A young man was driving and next to him was a young woman. Out of nowhere they started to insult me and told me to go back to my country, they said every type of insult.”

From Calhoun, Georgia:

“I was leaving Kroger and I stopped in the entrance to respond to a text message as a white couple was walking in. I heard the woman say something about me and -- assuming that I don’t understand or speak English -- the man said to her that I would be one of the first to be deported by Trump. Of course I demanded an explanation and explained to them that I am as much a citizen of this country as them, but they ignored me and walked away laughing.”

From Martinsburg, West Virginia:

“Walking into a buffet restaurant, Golden Corral, a person said to my friend and me why haven’t you already left to your country, didn’t you understand what the president said, that he wanted us out, and in a more aggressive tone he said get out, go to your country.”