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'People are trembling' over state's new immigration law
Crackdown has local shops, taxis empty and Latino community fearful
Araceli Galuan, 29, does laundry Thursday while daughter Yaretzi, 2, looks on at the Village Wash & Dry Lavanderia on Atlanta Highway. Galuan, who is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, moved to Gainesville in 1998. The mother of four says she has seen a decrease in the number of Hispanics in the community since the passage of Georgia’s new immigration law. She says many people are leaving the state or returning to their home country. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

An entire wall at Village Wash and Dry Lavanderia on Atlanta Highway is filled with clothes dryers. But on a drizzling Thursday afternoon, only one is occupied with tumbling clothes.

A telenovela from a wall-mounted television is a distraction from the emptiness as Araceli Galuan, 29, folds her children's T-shirts.

"Before, in this laundromat, there used to be so many people, but now ..."

Her voice trails off while a translator explains that Galuan, who came to Gainesville 13 years ago with her family from Guanajuato, sees a big difference in her adopted community since Georgia lawmakers this year passed an aggressive bill that targeted
illegal immigrants.

Unless a federal judge agrees this week to temporarily block it, many of the provisions of Georgia's Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011 are set to go into effect Friday.

The bill is Georgia lawmakers' effort at stemming the amount of taxpayer dollars spent providing medical care to illegal immigrants or processing them in the state's judicial system.

But its constitutionality has been called into question by civil rights groups who have sued the state over some of the law's provisions, claiming it violates federal protections from unwarranted search and seizure.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also asked a federal judge to block the state from enforcing its new anti-illegal immigration law until the matter is decided in court.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash has promised that if he issues that requested injunction, he will do so before Friday when the law is set to go into effect.

Barring that decision, as of Friday,
local law enforcement will have the authority to check suspects' immigration status and arrest anyone found to be here illegally.

But members of Hall County's Latino community say a lot of people aren't waiting around for the ruling. Many are leaving, they say, and fear is filling the spaces left behind.

‘Ghost town' left behind

At Carniceria Tapatia, a Latino grocery store on Browns Bridge Road, Noe Covarrubias notices the impact that the law, House Bill 87, has already had on Hall County's once-thriving Latino community.

"It's a ghost town," Covarrubias said.

Three years ago, Atlanta Highway, the arterial route through Gainesville's Latino commercial community, was so filled with cars that it was difficult for a pedestrian to cross, business owner Jose Luis Diaz recalls.

"Today — now — you can cross with your eyes closed," Diaz said.

Hall County, with its ample poultry processing facilities and once-booming housing industry, has for years been an attractive destination for immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

Census figures show that between 2000 and 2010, Hall County's accounted-for Latino population grew by 72 percent, attracting so many immigrants it was one of the first counties in the state that federal immigration officials tapped to participate in the 287(g) program.

Since 2008, the local-federal partnership has allowed local officers to begin deportation proceedings for any arrestee who is brought to the county jail and determined to be in the country illegally.

And though community members say that partnership had its effect on the Latino population of Hall County, they say it's nothing compared to the fear House Bill 87 has inflicted on the community.

"I have never seen such a state of terror," said Father Jaime Barona, the leader of a largely-Latino congregation at Gainesville's St. Michael Catholic Church. "The people are trembling."

Almost daily, Barona says members of his congregation come to him with worries about family members who were deported. He tells of a seventh-grade girl, in the country legally, who had to move back to Mexico away from her family and way of life after her father was deported.

Like the groups that have filed suit against Georgia's efforts, Barona says Georgia's new anti-illegal immigration law invites racial profiling mostly targeted at Latinos. He takes the criticism a step further, saying the bill invites local law enforcement to "hunt" illegal immigrants and "corral" them like cattle.

"What they don't remember is that when the economy was pretty good, the immigrants worked in this county more than anyone else," Barona said. "The immigrants opened businesses. The immigrants came to Hall County and helped to build this county for the past 15 years. They don't remember that."

But at his family-owned grocery store Covarrubias seeks to remind people.

He and his brother, Diego, have plans to close their store Friday, the day House Bill 87 is scheduled to go into effect, in protest of a law they say is offensive and discriminatory to even the immigrants who come to Georgia legally.

‘We will not buy anything'

Other businesses in Gainesville's Latino community also have posted signs for the "Day without Immigrants" protest.

"We will not buy anything. We will not do anything - that is our plan," said Diego Covarrubias. "We are all immigrants, but this law makes it clear that they don't want immigrants here."

And while the Covarrubias brothers are closing their family business for one day in protest, Diaz is afraid Georgia's new law may have a more permanent effect on his Atlanta Highway business.

For 11 years, the teal-and-white cars belonging to Diaz's Fiesta Cab Co. have served to transport Gainesville's carless. Law enforcement's crackdown on illegal immigration originally was a boon to Diaz's business, as many illegal immigrants without driver's licenses traded their keys for the back seat of a taxi.

But as news has spread throughout the community of House Bill 87, there are fewer customers and Diaz is working more hours to make his ends meet.

"I'm driving all day, and every single customer has told me a different worry," said Diaz.

Diaz also worries. He said he is concerned that a section of the new law targeting those who knowingly transports illegal immigrants could put him at risk of "harboring" charges and fines of $1,000 per illegal immigrant rider.

He has 31 employees, all legal, who will lose their jobs if his business closes.

Already, eight of his employees have left Georgia for other states - Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina - where they feel they won't be "criminalized."

"The problem is that if a driver has his papers, but his wife doesn't or his children don't, then he has to find a way to protect them," Diaz said.

A lot of them are going back to Mexico, said Mayra Regina, a 22-year-old employee of El Expreso bus station on Atlanta Highway. The bus station is one stop of many for buses heading from Mexico to Raleigh, N.C.

Regina says business at the bus station has picked up in the past two months as illegal immigrants leave town for other states or their homes in Mexico.

When asked why, Regina says "the ley," the law on the minds of most in the local Latino community.

Outside the bus station, 18-year-old Armando Ramirez tells a story of a friend who, in fear and anticipation of Georgia's new immigration policy, recently sold his car for enough money to move to Washington. His friend chose the Pacific Northwest, because it isn't close to the border, it's "more peaceful" and much easier to get a driver's license.

"The American dream's there," Ramirez says with a laugh.

But not here, he adds. Not anymore.

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