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Hispanic population boom soon could be on the decline
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A group of men looking for work stands Wednesday afternoon on an Atlanta Highway corner. Although U.S. Census data has reported a 71.8 percent increase in Hall’s Hispanic population from 2000 to 2007, some predict next year’s data will show a decline in those numbers because of the economy and tougher immigration enforcement. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
Estimates released today from the U.S. Census Bureau show significant growth in Hall County’s Hispanic population from 2000 to 2007, but whether that steady growth trend will continue is an unknown factor even to Hispanics.

The July 2007 estimate shows a rate of growth in Hispanic residents that could already be on its way down when the 2008 estimates are released next year.

Those who serve the Hispanic community did not need the statistics to tell them that the number of Hispanics has risen by 71.8 percent in seven years — they have witnessed it.

In the past 10 years, Hispanic student population has grown to become about 34 percent of the Hall County school system, Superintendent Will Schofield said.

In March 1998, the school system had approximately 2,256 Hispanic students. Ten years later, the number of Hispanic students had grown to 8,490 by March 2008, while the number of white students stayed the same and the number of black students grew minimally.

"Almost all of our growth in the past decade has been from the Hispanic population," Schofield said.

Gene Beckstein, founder of Good News at Noon, a program that provides food and shelter to homeless people on Davis Street in Gainesville, said the growth in the Hispanic population is apparent every time he opens his doors.

Beckstein has been teaching English to Spanish-speaking immigrants on Thursdays and Saturdays for almost three years.

"When I first came to Gainesville, I ministered to the white people, and later, I ministered to the black people at Melrose (Apartments on Davis Street)," Beckstein said. "And (now) ... on the fourth Saturday of every month, I bring all the homeless guys to my home, and I feed them and most of them are Hispanic."

A slow economy and a recent beefing up of immigration enforcement in Hall County may halt eight years’ worth of growth in the area’s Hispanic population, however.

Some speculate the four-month-old partnership between the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and the federal government may play a role in the projections next year. Since the 287(g) program started in early April, allowing the sheriff’s office to determine whether detainees are illegal immigrants and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Hall County authorities have turned over 516 people, Maj. Jeff Strickland said.

Another 116 detainees must face criminal charges in Hall County before the sheriff’s office will transfer them to the federal agency, Strickland said.

Without documentation, many immigrants wait on the side of the road or in parking lots to be chosen as day laborers. Some of them suggest that the growth of the Hispanic population already is slowing with the economy.

As he stood on the side of Atlanta Highway waiting for work Wednesday, Teodolo Santana told The Times through a translator he had been in Gainesville for six years. Santana, who is originally from Michoacan, Mexico, said he has seen the number of job opportunities for immigrants drop in the past two years.

"We came here to work, but we can’t, because there’s no money (here), and we need papers to work," Santana said. "...They say that there’s more money here, and there is a little more, but not that much."

Santana suggested it might be easier for some Hispanics to return to their home countries rather than suffer the poverty resulting from the economic downturn in Gainesville, but some Hispanics are still coming.

Jose Carrillo, who stood alongside Santana also waiting for work, arrived Sunday in Gainesville looking for work. Carrillo, originally from Puebla, Mexico, came here from Elkhart, Ind., which suffered job losses this year as some of its largest employers closed factories.

"Many people are moving where there’s work," Carrillo said through a translator.

Still, the idea that job opportunities for Hispanics have become fewer resonates with those who had been here longer.

One man from Honduras who waited for work in a different parking lot Wednesday morning on Atlanta Highway said jobs have dried up in the year he has lived in Gainesville.

"There’s no work," the man, who called himself Patricio but would not give his last name, said through a translator.

Like Carrillo, Patricio said members of the local Hispanic community will go where the jobs are, but did not name a specific place where Hispanic immigrants could find jobs.

"No one knows (where Hispanics are moving)," he said. "Here, each person has his own life, and that’s how it is, they work. ... What’s happening is they’re going where the work is. Where? I don’t know. Wherever there’s word of work is where they’re going."

The uncertainty has even Schofield in the dark about how many students will show up for the first day of school today — a number school officials have successfully predicted within 100 students for years.

The school system normally grows by about 600 to 1,000 new students every year, Schofield said. But this year, with kindergarten "round-up" numbers less than they were last year, the school system is "geared up" to see smaller growth or none at all, Schofield said.

"We certainly are getting some reports that we have fewer immigrant children signing up for school this year," Schofield said. "But until we actually see some numbers, I wouldn’t want to try to quantify that."

Times photographer Sara Guevara contributed to this story and provided translation.

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