Armando Rodriguez, a Mexican-American from Houston’s rough-and-tumble Fifth Ward, has had a career marked by many firsts. He was the first person in his family to become a lawyer — though all of his siblings graduated from college. And after being elected in 1974 as a justice of the peace for Harris County’s Precinct 6, he became their first full-time Hispanic judge. He is also the county’s longest-serving elected official. In all these roles, he has dedicated his life to fighting stereotypes.
“There’s so much misinformation out there. I had a real problem with the image of Hispanics being second class, or dumb, or wearing a sombrero and saying ‘manana,’ ” says Rodriguez. Hispanics, and immigrants more broadly, he says, are no different than anyone else. “There are good and bad people in every culture, period.”
They just want the chance to work hard, raise their families, and contribute like we all do.
To showcase the good, Rodriquez founded the “Fiesta Patrias” parade in Houston a half-century ago. “It celebrates people of Spanish descent and promotes cross-cultural understanding so people can get to know us and learn that we’re intelligent people and good hosts and good friends,” he says. He’s a recipient of the Benito Juarez Medallion, which is the highest honor given to a non-resident of Mexico by the Mexican president for promoting understanding between Mexico and the United States.
During his time on the bench, Rodriguez developed a reputation for helping Houston’s most vulnerable communities by establishing healthcare clinics and finding creative ways to help troubled teens. He is also a passionate advocate for immigration reform that provides a pathway for permanent residency and citizenship for the 11.4 million undocumented immigrants who are currently living in the United States. A report by the Pew Research Center estimated that 575,000 undocumented immigrants live in the Houston area, the third-largest city in the nation after New York and Los Angeles.
“They’re not treated right,” he says, referring to how the undocumented face restrictions on their ability to work, receive financial aid for college, or qualify for health insurance or Social Security benefits despite the fact that many pay into the system. In Texas alone, it is estimated that undocumented immigrants paid $1.1 billion in state and local taxes in 2014. Undocumented immigrants generated a $100 billion surplus in the Social Security program in the last decade and a $35.1 billion surplus in the Medicare trust fund from 2000 to 2011.
“Yet, in spite of all these barriers they deal with, they’ve raised their families with decency,” Rodriguez says. Recently, the Texas Legislature passed a bill, SB-4, that critics have called one of the toughest anti-immigration laws in the country, as reported in the Houston Press, because it requires law enforcement officers to honor requests by federal authorities to hold people for possible deportation.
Rodriguez says his parents’ story of coming to the United States at age 6 gives him compassion for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. That’s why he is in favor of preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives nearly 800,000 such immigrants the right to work, legally apply for driver’s licenses, and enroll in college. “We need to give the undocumented community the respect it deserves,” he says. “They’re no different than anyone else. They just want the chance to work hard, raise their families, and contribute like we all do.”