IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – A Hispanic woman says her white co-workers at an Iowa claims office used images of Donald Trump to racially harass her for months after they learned she was angered by his description of Mexican immigrants as rapists, according to a civil rights lawsuit she filed against her company.
Alexandra Avila's co-workers at Sedgwick Claims Management Services — where they administered benefits for Wal-Mart employees — began calling her an "illegal immigrant" even though she's a natural-born U.S. citizen, according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Iowa district court. The suit claims her former co-workers placed a picture of an angry-looking Trump as Avila's computer's screensaver, signed her up to volunteer for his campaign and sent her racist memes, including one that read: "How's Mr. Donald Trump going to deport all these illegals? Juan by Juan."
The Republican presidential candidate's promise to build a border wall to keep out Mexican immigrants has for months contributed to racial tensions nationwide. "Build a wall" chants have been used by high school students to taunt Latino opponents at sporting events in multiple states, including Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana. At Kent State University, Latinos marching in the Homecoming parade this month said they were taunted with the same chant.
Avila, a 32-year-old mother of one who worked at Sedgwick for three years, claims she faced similar heckling at her white-collar workplace in Coralville, Iowa, from the beginning of Trump's campaign in June 2015 until after she was fired five months later.
"It's been a weird political season where one candidate is taking public stances on things that, if the same words were said in the workplace, might constitute violations of our civil rights laws," said Avila's attorney, Paige Fiedler. "His candidacy has emboldened some people to feel like that doesn't violate social norms anymore."
Lesley Gudehus, spokeswoman for Memphis, Tennessee-based Sedgwick, declined comment on the lawsuit.
Avila, born in California to Mexican parents, told colleagues she was upset with Trump's 2015 campaign launch when he said of Mexican immigrants: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."
Soon after, the lawsuit claims, colleagues removed the photo Avila had of her young daughter as her computer screensaver and replaced it with a picture of Trump yelling and pointing his finger. When Avila removed the photo, they kept switching it back to Trump, the suit alleges.
An email arrived from the Trump campaign last fall thanking her for the support and asking how she wanted to help, according to the suit. Avila also claims her colleagues sent offensive memes, including one showing a brown-skinned man that read: "Found Jesus — he stabbed me twice."
When her department was voting on a potluck menu, one co-worker said Avila was ineligible because she was an "illegal immigrant," drawing laughter from Avila's boss, the lawsuit claims. Avila contends that after she complained about the harassment, the company accused her of falsifying timecards by claiming she worked minutes more time than she actually did.
Avila was fired last November and escorted out, with Sedgwick saying it would send her personal property later. When her belongings arrived from FedEx, Avila says they contained a handwritten note that called her "La Trumpa" and added: "Illegal immigrants can't vote or work. Good luck finding a job."
"Getting that box in the mail was a horrific experience," Fiedler says.
After her firing, a co-worker sent her an invitation to a Trump rally on Facebook, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit, which names Sedgwick and two supervisors, alleges Avila suffered discrimination based on national origin and that the company failed to pay wages she earned.