Hispanic Businesses Feel The Squeeze

Aixa M. Pascual, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 14, 2007

Customers at Valeria Espinosa’s variety store just browse the CD racks and the T-shirts on the wall. More and more, they decide against an impulse purchase.

They are wiring money home to Mexico and Central America less often, too.

Her sales are down by about 40 percent for the past two months.

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Espinosa’s shop on Powder Springs Road in Marietta is not the only one hurting. Many businesses that cater to Hispanics are seeing a slowdown in sales. The crackdown on illegal immigrants, Espinosa says, “also hurts those of us who have papers.”

And the fallout has spread far beyond car dealers, which immediately felt the impact from a law that went into effect on July 1 requiring a Georgia driver’s license or ID card to get a car tag. It’s affecting bakeries, insurance peddlers, banks, food manufacturers, supermarkets, restaurants and other businesses.

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Nearly half of the Hispanic population in Georgia is undocumented, Bachtel explains. The census estimates there are 700,000 Hispanics in Georgia, but Bachtel says Hispanics are way undercounted.

“It’s affecting all businesses,” says Neil Moreno, who sells car insurance in a storefront next to Espinosa.

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• Banuestra, a Roswell-based bank with 12 branches in metro Atlanta, has seen its monthly revenue growth slow down to 10 percent from 35 percent earlier in the year, says chairman and CEO Drew Edwards. His clientele consists of about 23,000 Hispanic customers.

• Food manufacturer La Preferida, whose clients are predominantly small grocery stores that target Hispanic consumers, is having a tougher time selling its products. “[Consumers] get the basic stuff, like black beans and rice,” says merchandiser Victor Ramirez, who drives across the state, offering more attractive sales promotions nowadays on his merchandise. “But they are buying less and not purchasing non-essentials like cookies and candy.”

• Mexican restaurant Mexico Lindo in Smyrna has seen a big decline in business during the weekends, when the clientele is mostly Hispanic, says owner Jorge Echeverry. He’s also seen a decline in the non-Hispanic customers. To attract business, he’s offering specials and fixing up the bar, upgrading it with 42-inch TV screens.

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Miami-based public opinion researcher Sergio Bendixen, who carried out the survey, says that the Mexicans in states such as Georgia don’t feel welcome and face an uncertain future.

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In Georgia, a new law calls for verification of the status of applicants for public jobs and public benefits and to those thrown in jail for a felony or DUI.

Many people interviewed say fewer illegal immigrants are driving because of fear.

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Cobb County has gone further than other municipalities in Georgia in cracking down on illegal immigration. The county sheriff has an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that allows specially trained local jail officers to initiate deportation proceedings for illegal immigrants who are arrested.

“Cobb County has the most anti-immigrant policies in the state right now,” says Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, or GALEO. “Cobb County is going above and beyond to make itself an unfriendly place for immigrants.”

Some illegal immigrants are afraid to drive for fear of being stopped for offenses such as reckless driving and DUI and eventually end up deported.

Some drive back and forth to work, but are afraid to drive to the store.

“If they bring you to jail, we’re going to check your immigration status,” says Col. Don Barlett of the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office.

Of the 198 inmates at the Cobb County Jail interviewed to determine their status through Aug. 31, 142 have detainers which can subject them to deportation. ICE has taken custody of 32 illegal immigrants since the program went into effect at the end of June, says Maj. Janet Prince, one of the program’s supervisors.

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