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Are Latinos leaving? Evidence shows numbers shrinking

Empty businesses, taxicabs, full buses indicate changing population

POSTED: October 9, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Carniceria Tapatia manager Noe Covarrubias, 23, from Chicago, Ill., believes many Hispanics in Gainesville are leaving because of more aggressive law enforcement, as well as economic factors. Covarrubias has lived in Gainesville for seven years.

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Ask anyone on Atlanta Highway if Latinos are leaving Hall County, and there will not be one moment of hesitation in between the question and its affirmation.

Staples of the local Latino community - day laborers, managers of grocery stores and rental properties, owners of travel companies and retail shops - all say it is obvious that there are fewer Latinos in Hall County today than there were six months ago.

Proof of their departure is evident on and around Atlanta Highway in parked taxicabs and empty mobile homes. Many Latino businessmen say their businesses are suffering.

As other businesses decline, though, the recent success of one particular business may be the best gauge of what is happening with Hall County's Latino immigrant population.

In the last six months, ticket sales at the Gainesville terminal of El Expreso bus company have increased by as much as 60 to 80 percent. The bus company sends daily buses from Raleigh, N.C., to McAllen, Texas, near the Mexican border, said the terminal's owner, Miguel Nuñez.

Most of the tickets Nuñez sells are for trips to Mexico.
Six months ago, the Hall County Sheriff's Office struck a partnership with federal officials under section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which created a program that trains local officials to enforce immigration law.

The partnership allows the sheriff's office to check the immigration status of every person booked into the Hall County jail. If an arrested person is found to be an illegal immigrant, he or she will be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement once the original criminal case is closed in Hall County.

After the partnership started in April, Jose Luis Diaz said his taxicab business was as busy as it had been in seven years, but the surge did not last long.

For a while, the phone at Fiesta Cab Co. was ringing with as many as 600 calls per day. Many of those calls were from Latino immigrants without valid Georgia driver's licenses, Diaz said.

The company's 30 green-and-white taxicabs were constantly busy delivering food from local restaurants and giving rides to Latinos who feared driving but who needed to get to work or to the store, Diaz said.

"About five months ago, probably ... it was very, very good business," Diaz said. "I was busy all day here in the office."

On Thursday, however, Diaz said his business was down by as much as 40 percent. Latino customers used to be lined up at Gainesville's Wal-Mart on the weekends waiting for a cab. But these days, there are more cabs than customers, Diaz said.

The dress shop that Diaz's sister owns, Fiesta Latina, has lost significant business, too.

Some of Diaz's regular customers have told him that they are not shopping as much because they are saving money "in case, you know, anything happens," he said.

"Everything is very visible," Diaz said. "You see the taxis parking everywhere now."

These days, Diaz said he can count on giving someone a ride to the bus station or to the airport almost daily. On weekdays, Diaz said Fiesta Cab Co. takes about six or seven people to El Expreso. His drivers take twice as many people there on the weekends.

"They take big suitcases, so that means not come back," Diaz said.

At El Expreso, Nuñez says another indicator that many Latinos are leaving for good is that at least 90 percent of his customers are paying extra - some up to $300 - in excess baggage fees.

The greatest signs that Latinos are leaving Hall County, though, can be found in the windows and yards of vacant rental homes that only months ago were a scarce find, Nuñez said.

"A lot of spaces are for lease, especially in Atlanta Highway where it was very difficult to find a spot (to live), now you can find it on almost every corner," he said.

The trailer park that 22-year-old Yelina Nuñez manages near Atlanta Highway was filled with Latino renters about four months ago, she said.

Now, there are at least four empty units there, and the trailer park across the street has even more "For Rent" signs. Some landlords go as far as offering free rent and promising to help prospective renters move their belongings.

"Right now, we're just barely making it," Yelina Nuñez said.

Some of the renters at the mobile home park have had to break their leases because they could no longer afford the rent, she said.

"It's getting really hard for them to get a job or stuff like that, and they can't afford (rent) no more, so they just going to another place where they can get a job and afford it," she said.

The economy is one of the reasons those inside the local Latino community say the once-flourishing population is leaving Hall County. The decline in the local construction industry has forced many Latinos to head elsewhere in search of jobs, many say.

Day laborers who waited for work in an Atlanta Highway parking lot Wednesday morning said a lot of people they knew had gone to Charlotte, N.C., to look for construction jobs.

The men waiting for work Wednesday said that with so many people looking for the same kind of work, they only occasionally find work in Gainesville these days.
"There are less trucks (that pick us up for work)," Luis Katina, from Oaxaca, Mexico, said through an interpreter.

Katina said he found work the week before cleaning someone's yard, but future job opportunities were an uncertainty.

"I'll be lucky to find work this week," he said.

Recent law enforcement initiatives could also be a part of the reason Latinos are leaving Gainesville. In fact, many business owners say it is the primary cause.

Since the Hall County Sheriff's Office has been able to process illegal immigrants through 287(g), 564 people arrested in the county have been turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Col. Jeff Strickland, the department's chief deputy.

Another 91 people have been detained under the 287(g) process, but they will not be turned over to immigration officials until their criminal cases are closed in Hall County, Strickland said.

Noe Covarrubias, manager of the Browns Bridge Road branch of his father's grocery store, Carniceria Tapatia, said that since 287(g) began, some of his customers have come to the store only to say goodbye.

They were headed to other southern states like Alabama and the Carolinas where law enforcement was not as aggressive, Covarrubias said.

Covarrubias said he has noticed an increased law enforcement presence in the Latino community, and said that shortly after 287(g) started, county and city police would set up road blocks, checking for driver's licenses in places where Latinos lived and congregated.

"I saw it all the time," he said.

Strickland says the sheriff's office has not changed its tactics since the inception of 287(g), and has made a point not to target the Latino community.

"We have not targeted any specific areas specifically to arrest Hispanics," Strickland said. "Our road checks are usually based on our traffic maps based on DUI enforcement, accident areas and high-crime areas."

Because of 287(g), the Latinos who are not leaving Hall County are lying low to avoid coming into contact with the law, Covarrubias said. Carniceria Tapatia now delivers groceries and now offers free rides home to its patrons, and the county's partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement has had a visible effect on vehicle traffic in areas of Hall County that were once densely populated with Latinos, Covarrubias said.

"Nowadays, no cars are out," Covarrubias said.

For whatever reason, many immigrants, disenchanted with the dreams of "El Norte" - or "The North," the land they traveled to in search of opportunities - are now returning home, Yelina Nuñez said.

"Some people are just simply going back to Mexico and that's it," Yelina Nuñez said. "Well, (if) they're going to have the same life they're going to have here - no job, no nothing - you just rather be in your land than somebody else's."



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