The traffic is unusually light on a recent afternoon on Atlanta Highway — the center of Gainesville’s sizable working-class Hispanic population.
But inside Jose Luis Diaz’s taxicab business, the calls come in at a rate of 600 per day.
"I’ve been in this business seven years," said Diaz, owner of Gainesville’s largest taxi fleet catering to Hispanics, Fiesta Cab Co. "I’ve never been busy like this."
Gesturing to a dispatcher taking a call inside a small windowed corner office, Diaz said, "It used to be, he may get a call every five minutes. Now he never stops answering the phone."
In the past month, taxicab companies have seen an increase in business by as much as 30 percent — a direct result, owners say, of a new law enforcement initiative targeting immigration violations.
The initiative, a local-federal partnership known as 287(g), was implemented in April by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. It allows detention officers to begin deportation proceedings for any arrestee who is brought to the county jail and determined to be in the country illegally.
Sheriff Steve Cronic has said that the initiative has already cut down on the number of arrests for common traffic offenses such as driving without a license.
Cab owners agree: Latinos who don’t possess valid Georgia drivers licenses are driving less and cabbing it more.
"Most of the people don’t want to risk it," said Claudia Miranda, who with her husband runs Taxi El Dorado. "They’re not driving anymore because they know if they get pulled over and go to jail, it’s automatic deportation."
Diaz said he’s already heard of it happening to some of his customers. And he said he’s seen its effect on families.
"I can see mothers cry when we’re taking them to the jail," he said. "It hurts your heart, but this is the law now."
Many immigrants now take cabs to Wal-Mart and grocery stores for their weekend shopping, when they used to drive, Diaz said. Some Latino stores have begun delivery services in response to the fewer number of immigrants behind the wheel. Cab drivers are even delivering fast food and groceries when they are dispatched to homes, Diaz said.
Some changes are barely noticeable to some but obvious to others.
Traffic on Atlanta Highway and nearby city streets used to be much heavier, both Diaz and Miranda say.
"Now, if you go out at night, or on the weekends, it’s way lighter," Miranda said. "It used to take forever to get to a call. Now it’s taking less time."
"No one could walk across (Atlanta Highway) before," Diaz said.
Diaz has 30 cabs, Miranda’s company has 14. They say they can handle the sudden increase in calls, but just barely. Taxi El Dorado’s three phone lines "are ringing off the hook most of the day," Miranda said. "Sometimes we have so many calls, we just quit answering them."
Diaz believes fear and uncertainty has gripped the larger Latino community and affected spending, with a downturn in retail sales in stores like his sister’s clothing boutique, and an upswing in the amount of cashed wired to Mexico via Western Union.
Said Miranda, who has a side business selling compact discs of popular Mexican salsa music, "the CD business is way too slow. People don’t want to spend as much money as they used to, because they don’t know what’s going to happen to them."
Diaz said he sees more empty units in trailer parks that used to be filled with blue-collar Hispanics.
Jerry Gonzalaz, an advocate for immigrants who heads up the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the possible early signs of an exodus should worry Hall County’s industry leaders. "We’ve seen some of that in Cobb County, where apartment occupancy rates have dropped dramatically," Gonzalez said.
Cobb County was the first to initiate 287(g) in Georgia, and like Hall, initiates deportation proceedings against illegal aliens for any arrestable offenses, including traffic violations.
"If that’s what’s going to be done, are you building a situation like what’s happening in Arizona?" Gonzalez said. "There’s an exodus there that’s had a huge negative economic impact on that state. When we look at some of the aggressive anti-immigrant legislation, we need to look at the economic consequences. Ultimately we’re not going to be able to pluck and process chickens with this work force that is so critical."
The poultry plants that draw many Hispanic workers, from Fielddale to Mar-Jac, Pilgrims Pride and Wayne Poultry, are among the main destinations for Gainesville’s taxicabs now.
"There’s always people waiting for a taxi, at almost all of the chicken plants now," Diaz said.
Diaz said that while his company is doing as much business now as it ever has, he has serious concerns about the long-term effects 287(g) might have on the Hispanic community.
"It’s good business for now, but I don’t know for how long," he said. "I really worry about the future."