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A shrinking population: If Latinos are leaving, where are they going?
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Hear Doug Bachtel, a demographer with UGA, talk about migration.

There is ample evidence that Latinos are leaving Hall County. The reason why Latinos are leaving depends on whom you ask.

Day laborers who wait for work in parking lots on Atlanta Highway say Latinos are leaving in search of jobs.

A few, who spoke to The Times while they waited for someone to offer them a job opportunity Wednesday, talked of acquaintances who have gone to North and South Carolina in search of construction jobs.

The jobs here have dried up, and opportunities come less frequently.

"I find work two days a week," said Luis Katina, a day laborer who came to Gainesville from Oaxaca, Mexico.

Standing underneath a flagpole, Katina said he would be lucky to find work Wednesday or the rest of the week.

Yelina Nuñez, manager of a trailer park near Atlanta Highway, has watched as Latino immigrants have moved out of the community during the past four months.

She says that immigration enforcement is one of the main reasons Latinos are leaving the country, but those who have moved out have told her that a lack of work is making it difficult for them to pay their rent. And they're leaving to find work.

"Most of them say that they're going to Los Angeles, Texas - far away from Georgia, "Nuñez said.

Douglas C. Bachtel, a demographer with the University of Georgia, said what's happening is a normal part of migration. At some point, many people get dissatisfied with their new home - possibly due to factors such as lagging economy and discrimination or even being homesick - and return home.

And Latinos aren't just returning home; a recent study suggests that fewer illegal immigrants are crossing into the United States from Mexico. A new study by the Pew Hispanic Center, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C., estimates that annual undocumented arrivals from Mexico are down about 25 percent from 2005 to about 350,000 this year.

Migration ebbs and flows

Bachtel explained that migration from one area to another, such as from Mexico to North Georgia or even from northern states to southern ones, gradually builds into a steady stream of people, largely fed by word of mouth. At some point, various factors may cause some people who arrive in a new area to be dissatisfied with the area and return home, or move to another location, creating a "counterstream."

"For a variety of reasons, there's a counterstream of those people that either don't like it or can't make it or are homesick or don't like the weather or whatever, and they turn around and go back home. And that's what we're seeing (with Latinos)," Bachtel said. "It's sort of a dissatisfaction. Not everybody can be satisfied with the move, so they pick up stakes and move back home."

This occurrence isn't restricted only to Latino immigration into the U.S. Bachtel said blacks living in Atlanta began leaving the area decades ago to seek opportunities up north because of discrimination and lack of jobs. Some returned quickly. But some blacks, many after having spent some 30 to 40 years working in the auto industry, have recently returned to the Atlanta area, he said.

And, it has happened on much larger scales. As many as one-third of the nearly 30 million foreigners who arrived in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War I returned to their native countries.

Bachtel said just as there are negative factors - low wages and poor quality of life - "pushing" Latinos out of Mexico, there are positive factors "pulling" them into North Georgia - better wages, education and freedom. But there also may be negative factors pushing immigrants out when they arrive in a new area, such as discrimination or a poor economy or even missing friends and family or native foods.

"Not everybody has the pizzazz or moxie to migrate, because you got to be a risk-taker," Bachtel said. "You've got to pick up roots and come to a strange land, strange place, strange food, strange money, strange talk and all that stuff. And not everybody digs that or can put up with it.

"Even in the United States, a move is listed as one of the most stressful things you can do, just for an ordinary person to move. You get a new place and a new job and new people and new surroundings. And so magnify that with language and culture ... it really impacts them."

Just as a poor U.S. economy and a more aggressive stance on illegal immigration seems to be keeping immigrants from entering from Mexico, those same factors seem to be causing Latinos to leave Hall County.

Latinos seeking jobs in other counties and cities

Bachtel said the slowdown in the economy likely is a big factor in sending many of Hall's undocumented Latinos back home or to other cities.

Sectors like landscaping, construction and the service industry, which often depend heavily on migrant workers, all have been hurt by the soft economy.

"These folks are last-hired, first-fired. And those industries are dependent on a lot of other things that will feel an economic slowdown quicker than other industries," he said. "So as a result, the job opportunities have been drying up, and the reason they're here is because of the jobs."

He explained that many immigrants then must fall back on a safety net of either their own savings or savings of friends and family, which often doesn't last very long.

"So the only thing left is to either move to another location or go back home," Bachtel said. "Now going back home is not just a one-step process. They're probably going to different locations along the way. They might stop in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas before they make it back home, looking for jobs all along the way."

Bachtel said he believes that the destruction left in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike may actually provide an opportunity for displaced, undocumented migrant workers to find low-skilled labor in assisting cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

Latinos also leaving due to increased enforcement

Miguel Nuñez, owner of the Gainesville terminal of El Expreso bus company, said he is selling about 80 percent more tickets to the Mexican border than he did six months ago.

The reason people are leaving is two-fold, he said.

"The economy is not helping, but the law enforcement is making it worse," he said.

Other members of the Latino business community also say one of the main reasons Latinos are no longer as visible in Hall County as they were one year ago is because of section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The law created a program that trains local officials to enforce immigration law and has resulted in a recent partnership between the Hall County Sheriff's Office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The federal law allows the Hall County 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.

Many Latino business people say once the law went into effect in Hall County, there were police checkpoints in and around areas where members of the Latino community lived, worked and recreated.

Noe Covarrubias, manager of Carniceria Tapatia, a Browns Bridge Road grocery store, said he knows Latinos are leaving because business at the store is down.

Covarrubias has seen the effects of 287(g) in mothers who come in the store with their children asking for help with food, because a husband has been deported after getting caught for driving without a license. He says he has friends who have come in the store to tell him goodbye, and that they are leaving for another state - Alabama, North and South Carolina - where the law enforcement is not as aggressive toward Latinos.

Yet, Col. Jeff Strickland, chief deputy of the Hall County Sheriff's Office, says the department has not changed its enforcement tactics as a result of 287(g).

"We have not targeted any specific areas specifically to arrest Hispanics," Strickland said. "... To be fair to the Hispanic community, we have made it a point not to target those type areas such as the soccer fields or things of that nature."

Strickland says the sheriff's office has done a "significant community outreach program" in Latino churches, attempting to educate immigrants on how they can avoid the 287(g) program.

"Basically, just be a law-abiding citizen and avoid being arrested," Strickland said.

"This is not an anti-immigration (program)," Strickland said. "It only affects the immigrants that continue to violate the law while they're here in the United States."

But Yelina Nuñez, who has lived in Gainesville for more than 10 years, said she has noticed an increase in police presence since the 287(g) program began. She said that Latinos still are coming to the United States, but they are not coming to Georgia, specifically because of tougher immigration laws.

"Around Gainesville, when you used to see two cops, now you see four to five cops," she said.

Miguel Nuñez said he wrote a letter to Rep. Nathan Deal shortly after the 287(g) program started in Hall County.

Deal responded that the program will help until the government is able to secure the borders between the United States and Mexico, Miguel Nuñez said.

The reply confused Nuñez.

"Secure the borders from what? From who? We're your neighbors, you know, from next door," Nuñez said.

Nuñez said he is worried about the effect that the 287(g) program is having on families in Hall County. When parents are deported, U.S. born children have to follow or stay behind with relatives or friends.

Those children are not Mexicans, Nuñez said.

"It's going to be difficult for them to adjust to Mexican culture," he said.

Hispanics likely to return

Miguel Nuñez said he believes many Latinos are leaving for good because at least 90 percent of his customers are paying extra - some up to $300 - in excess baggage fees.

But Bachtel said he believes Latinos will return.

"(Migration) goes back and forth," Bachtel said. "It's dynamic."

Immigration from Latin America slowed when the U.S. went into an economic recession in 2000-2001; but they returned and immigration - illegal and legal - surged again.

Bachtel said once the jobs return, Latinos will return. He explained that the nature of the industries that most often hire Latinos, such as landscaping, construction and service industries, is that business always is fluctuating. When the economy eventually rebounds, those businesses will expand again and will have a greater need for workers.

"What will happen is, those jobs will increase and you'll see an increase in Hispanics," Bachtel said. "It's almost like an underground economy. With the telephones and e-mails and the mail, a couple will get hired and they'll write a letter home."

The opportunity for better jobs in the U.S., because of the extremely low wages currently available in Mexico, will continue to pull Latinos back across the border, Bachtel said, wherever those jobs may be.

"There will always be that push factor there, and the pull factor of higher wages here," he said.

Is there a solution?

So the pattern of Latino migration between the United States and Mexico is likely to continue repeating itself. But Bachtel feels there is a solution to end the cycle, though perhaps not a popular one.

He suggested economic development in northern Mexico, which would create viable, good-paying jobs, would keep Mexicans in their own country.

"We assist other countries with economic development projects. Why not begin to create a series of well-paying jobs in northern Mexico so those folks wouldn't have to come across the border. And they want to stay in their own country anyway, I'm sure of it," he said.

He said that various, stressful factors of continuously moving and dealing with new cultures must cause a great deal of anxiety for migrant Latinos.

"It seems like we need a Marshall plan for northern Mexico," Bachtel said, referencing the American plan that was used to help a battered Western Europe get back on its feet after World War II.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.