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Fewer Latinos buying cars, renting homes
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Tres Amigos Auto Sales office manager Rafael Romero sits Thursday in his office off Atlanta Highway. Romero says business is slow. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Used car lots are a dominant feature along Atlanta Highway. Many of them carry the Hispanic surname of their owners. In Spanish, the signs advertise easy credit and quick financing with or without an established credit record.

In the industry, they are often called "tote-a-note," offering financing by the dealer, often at rates that are higher than market interest rates.

But these days, used car dealers along the strip say a once brisk customer base has dried up.

There are two reasons. First, state law requires a Georgia driver's license to obtain the title to a car and, in turn, purchase a license plate. Secondly, the enforcement of immigration laws has resulted in deportation of illegal immigrants stopped on routine traffic stops.

Rafael Romero of Tres Amigos Auto Sales knows firsthand about the immigration issue. He has had to repossess cars that were impounded after their former owners were arrested. Getting the car out of a impound lot can cost between $175 to $600. Sometimes the value of the car makes it more economical to just leave it.

"In April, they started doing roadblocks and asking for Georgia driver's license," Romero said. "If they've got no driver's license, they take them to the jail and immigration is there."

Romero said some of those who lived in Hall County have moved to other counties, such as Fulton County, where immigration enforcement is not as strong. Others, he said, have moved to other states, while some have made the trip back across the border to their homes in Mexico.

In the three years he has been in business, he has watched once bustling weekend crowds at a nearby apartment complex dwindle down. The apartment complex has a large banner advertising "Move-In Immediately."

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," Nuñez said.

Back at Tres Amigos, Romero has watched his sales come to a screeching halt.

"We can't buy more cars now because nobody buys cars," he said. On his lot are nine cars that have been there for some time.

"I hope we're still open next year," he said.

The story is repeated up the street at Gorilla Auto Sales. Office manager Tiffany Calvert said Hispanics once contributed to steady sales.

"They have money and they pay," Calvert said. "But now they can't because so many of them can't drive."

Aldo Torres, 22, was born in Chicago and works at another Atlanta Highway dealership.

"The problem is that if you can't get tags for your car, you can't move around, unless it's a taxi," Torres said. "A taxi is pretty expensive, so you don't have a way to work. So, you move somewhere else where the law is not so hard on them."

He said some Latinos find a legal driver to ferry a group.

"Unless they find a guy with a valid license, there's no way they can afford a taxi every single day," Torres said.

But those taxi services also are suffering from a decrease in business. Jose Luis Diaz said shortly after the 287(g) enforcement started locally, his taxicab business was as busy as it had been in seven years, but the surge did not last long.

"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.
Torres said his customers are no longer returning to his car lot to trade for newer models.

"Before all these laws came in, they would come back often and trade in or buy another one," he said. "Now, they don't live here anymore."

Those Latinos who do still live here are having trouble making ends meet. The Census Bureau reported last month that the income of U.S. households headed by non-citizen foreigners dropped 7.3 percent in 2007 from the previous year, after rising 4.1 percent in 2006.

Nuñez said some of the renters at the mobile home park she manages 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 Associated Press and Times reporter Ashley Fielding contributed to this story.