E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

Immigrants reshape Houston, America’s most diverse metropolis

Oil men give way to imams in this hot urban sprawl of 6 million – black, white, Hispanic and Asian

HOUSTON — On Wright Road, near the cellphone parking lot at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, sits an enormous rectangular warehouse and parking lot stippled taxicab yellow. Sedans and SUVs imprinted with the blocky names of car companies line up headlight to taillight in countless rows. Drivers of every nationality, age and background — nearly all men — wait hours to be dispatched to the airport terminal with the promise of a $53 fare.

They huddle around TVs, lift weights, gossip, pray and eat in a rundown concrete shelter that once served as a detention facility and is now Houston’s main taxi depot. There’s a circle of North Africans watching Arabic-language news, a lively pingpong game, a chess match and a lone Pakistani leaning back in a plush armchair. In the only air-conditioned part of the structure, not far from the two food trucks parked outside, drivers nuke their lunches in microwaves stacked on the floor, and part-time students read and surf the Web.

From left: Houston taxi drivers Mohammed, 49, who uses one name; Ali Sayed, 55; and Sam Arnick, 63, at the airport depot.
E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

Ebrahim Ulu, an affable, round-faced man with a broken gait, begins a sultry 14-hour shift in July. A teacher and public-health worker in Ethiopia, he went to Houston in 2007 on a diversity visa, a certain number of which go to countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. “For six months, I slept in the car in order to buy a car and bring my family from Africa,” he said. Life today is much improved: After a long day of driving and waiting for customers, he returns home to his two young children and pregnant wife. He owns the car he drives but must lease the right to operate a taxi in the form of a costly $170-per-week medallion. 

The burden of having to rent the medallion from a middleman moved Ulu and his fellow drivers to form an unofficial union, the United Houstonian Taxi Drivers Association, in 2011. It’s the eighth organizing effort that Sam Arnick, a 63-year-old African-American driver, has seen in his long career as a Houston cabby. “In the past we had 10 different ethnic groups out there. They didn’t trust each other, so we got representatives,” he said.

Each community of drivers — Latinos, African-Americans, East Africans, West Africans, South Asians — now has a voice in leadership, and the union has become a fixture at city council hearings, demanding more reasonable lease rates, improved sanitation at the airport depot, direct ownership of medallions and, most recently, protection against informal ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft.

“I used to dream of going to the U.N., but the U.N. came to me,” Ulu said.

Chris Delphin, left, a Houston native, sits with his fiancé, Roy Brooks, outside their Montrose bungalow. In recent years, Delphin said, he has “noticed a lot more interracial couples like us.”
E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

In the past 20 years, Houston — that most Texan of Texan cities — has come to look more and more like the taxi drivers. From 1990 to 2010, Greater Houston added more than 2.2 million people (PDF) and now boasts a population of more than 6 million. (The city proper has 2.2 million residents.) The metropolitan area has eclipsed New York and Los Angeles to become the most racially and ethnically diverse in the United States.

A joint report published last year by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas (PDF) found that Greater Houston scores highest on the multigroup entropy index, which measures diversity according to the presence and proportions of the four major racial groups (white, black, Hispanic and Asian). All five Houston counties have become more diverse over the past two decades, with increased numbers of Hispanics (from 20.8 to 35.3 percent) and Asians (from 3.4 to 6.5 percent), a stable population of blacks (about 17 percent) and a decrease in whites, or Anglos, (from over 50 to under 40 percent), though rates of residential segregation remain high.

On July 12, Houston Mayor Annise Parker hosted her third annual iftar dinner, symbolically breaking the Ramadan fast with 2,000 guests. “We have the largest refugee, expat and immigrant population in the U.S.,” she told the crowd, praising the city’s diversity and calling for a compassionate response to young Central Americans crossing the border. It was an un-Texan speech at an un-Texan meal delivered by an un-Texan politician: Parker is a three-term liberal and a married lesbian. Her nuptials, however, took place in California, since her home state doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

‘People who heard about economic opportunities came here. You could come in and get a vehicle and get to work, get a fresh start.’

Sam Arnick

taxi driver and labor organizer in Houston

Amina Mohamed, 18, is a freshman at the University of Houston. She arrived as a refugee from Somalia by way of Kenya in 2005.
E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

On maps, Houston resembles a spider web. Its two concentric freeways — Interstate 610 and the Sam Houston Parkway — and radiating highway spokes form neighborhoods as likely to be populated by new immigrants as longtime white, black and Hispanic residents.

The city has the highest concentration of refugees in the country, thanks to its strong network of placement agencies, job opportunities and reasonable cost of living. Since the late 1970s, the city has welcomed 70,000 refugees: Bosnians and Cambodians fleeing genocide, the Lost Boys of Sudan and Vietnamese, Iraqis and Afghans escaping destructive U.S. interventions in their homelands. According to a State Department spokesman, Houston’s diversity begets more diversity. Refugees are placed in part on the basis of existing friend and family networks, which “can make a big difference in helping a refugee family successfully settle in the United States, assisting with everything from finding work to teaching American cultural and social norms.” And it’s not just Houston. Texas receives more refugees than any other state — nearly 7,000 in 2013 — and more than 10 percent of the nation’s total.  

Shirin Herman, a multilingual academic coach for Houston public schools, has worked with refugee students and families for the past 13 years. “Very often, I will have the occasion to meet a family here after 10, 15, 20 days, and the transformation is amazing,” she said. “People from refugee camps in Tanzania and Myanmar haven’t eaten well, haven’t had water. You see how much basic things like that can change a person.”

Every refugee family is given a temporary starter package of a furnished apartment, food stamps and health insurance funded by the State and Health and Human Services departments. But “the trouble starts when the stress comes, when the rent subsidy runs out,” Herman says. “Language is a barrier. Transportation is a barrier.” (Although Houston has a bus system and bike lanes and is building a light-rail system, it remains difficult to live without an air-conditioned car.)

Amina Mohamed, 18, was born and raised in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp and arrived in Houston with her mother and three brothers in 2005. “We came here because there was war and starvation” in Somalia, she said.

Shirin Herman, left, a multilingual academic coach for Houston public schools, counsels a young political refugee from South Asia.
E. Tammy Kim / Al Jazeera America

Mohamed had never attended school, but she put her mind to learning English and catching up on everything else. Meanwhile, her mother found work cleaning hotel rooms. Her older brother drove a taxi. At Lee High School, one of Houston’s most diverse, she became best friends with girls from Azerbaijan and Sudan. She excelled in school and received a scholarship to attend the University of Texas at Dallas but turned it down to stay close to home. “It’s not my choice, but I did it for my mom,” she said, wearing a shy smile and a traditional pink robe and patterned hijab. “Our cultural beliefs are that women are not supposed to be out without family.”

The family lives in Bellaire, an immigrant-heavy neighborhood west of Houston proper, in an apartment complex nicknamed Little Baghdad. They worship at an English-speaking mosque alongside Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Egyptian, Ethiopian and Somali families. “I never felt like someone didn’t like me because of my skin color,” Mohamed said.

City policies have adapted to changes in the population. Last year Parker signed an executive order requiring municipal agencies to provide services and information in the city’s top five languages other than English. “Over 100 languages are spoken in Houston,” said Terence O’Neill, division manager of Houston’s Office of International Communities, but “immigrant and refugee populations and services is a very limiting way of thinking about [diversity]. People come here for all kinds of reasons. It’s a prosperous city."

Houston, often called the capital of “the third coast” (on the Gulf of Mexico), is predicted to see continued economic and physical growth from new immigrants and domestic transplants alike. The city’s job base — fueled by the nation’s largest medical center, energy companies, manufacturing, a vast arts district and the service sector — increased 7 percent in the last decade and will add 18 percent in the next, economists say.

Life at the airport taxi depot is distant from yet intimately linked to these larger forces. Passengers and fares track business patterns and housing trends — on Sunday the rush of travelers arriving for weekday meetings, freshly pitched suburban asphalt, the changing faces of the drivers. “Houston had an economic crisis in the 1980s. That’s how I got involved in the [taxi] industry,” said Arnick, the native Houstonian and former petroleum engineer. “People who heard about economic opportunities came here. You could come in and get a vehicle and get to work, get a fresh start ... There’s a lot of guys here with Ph.D.s, businesspeople and senators. But now we’re all here.”

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