Arizona officials say they are overrun with Mexicans. In Hoke County, though, Mexicans seem to be heading home–and some business owners miss them.
Raeford mobile home park owner Isidoro Basurto said scores of Mexican families have re-crossed the border in the past year, resigned to tougher immigration enforcement and a bad economy north of the Rio Grande.
“I can tell you, 99 percent of the people that move from this mobile home park, they go back to Mexico,” Basurto said.
The Mexican departures may be subtly reshaping the demographics of Hoke County and other North Carolina communities where, until recently, Hispanic immigrants were recruited for demanding but low-wage jobs in farm fields and meat-packing plants–jobs that Americans have shunned.
Business owners who cater to Hispanics bemoan the slumping sales that have followed the sad farewells of customers.
El Ranchero, a Mexican grocery store in Lumberton, used to be a well-known spot for immigrants to find anything from fresh produce to the latest Mexican music CDs.
Now it’s the place to buy a one-way ticket back to Mexico–with buses departing seven days a week.
“Nobody wants to give us steady work,” Dagoberto Garcia said in Spanish as he waited with four other men under the shade of an awning. “For many years, places like the meat-processing plants and farms welcomed us with open arms. Today, they won’t even let us on the premises to apply for work.
“I’m going home and coming back when it gets better.”
In addition to fickle employers and a wobbly economy, immigrant laborers such as Garcia and Herrara say controversial deportation efforts, including the 287(g) program, are prompting them to leave North Carolina. The 287(g) program is named after a section of the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
Supporters of a crackdown on illegal immigration hope 287(g) and other U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiatives will create jobs for unemployed Americans.
In response, however, employers have chosen other ways to find cheap foreign labor.
Mountaire Farms, which runs a large poultry-processing plant in Lumber Bridge, is said to have hired a contractor to supply immigrant workers from Burma and Thailand.
Michael Tirrell, vice president of human resources and business services for Mountaire Farms, would not directly address whether Burmese or Thai workers have taken jobs once held by Mexicans.
Hispanic advocates said they are witnessing what amounts to a widespread repatriation to Mexico.
“Who’s staying? The people who could care less if they get arrested,” said Vasquez [Lucy Vasquez, executive director of Amigos International in Wilmington], whose agency does work in Bladen and Sampson counties.
Basurto, who runs a cafeteria at the plant, said the personnel office began getting rid of Mexicans after a 2008 U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raid at a sister plant in South Carolina.
House of Raeford settled criminal charges of deliberately hiring undocumented workers last year by paying a $1.5million fine and agreeing to closer monitoring by ICE in Raeford and at seven other plants.
Basurto has felt the fallout in the cafeteria. Basurto said he has gone from selling $2,000 worth of Mexican food a day to about $200.
During a recent lunch break, a procession of black workers were seen walking from the plant to a nearby convenience store. Basurto said he is considering more Southern comfort food for his menu.
Sister Jeanne Morgan, pastoral administrator at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church in Raeford, said fewer Mexicans attend a 9 a.m. Mass in Spanish on Sundays.
Morgan speculated that the disappearance of Mexicans may just be peculiar to Hoke County because the meat plants are close by.
State figures show the Hispanic student body in Hoke County public schools increased by 11.3 percent between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years. But the growth in Hispanic enrollment slowed to 5.2percent this year.
The CommWell Health chain of community clinics in Bladen, Sampson and nearby counties is treating fewer migrant farm workers. Victoria Martin, marketing and public relations manager for what used to be called the Tri-County Community Health Council, said the clinic has seen modest decreases in migrant patients for three consecutive years.
Like Hoke County, Bladen County reported a slowdown in Hispanic public school enrollment, from an 8 percent increase in 2009 to only 2 percent this year.
Many Hispanics cleared out after Smithfield began rechecking their Social Security numbers and ICE raided the slaughterhouse, both in 2006.
Blacks took the place of many Hispanics. Black workers went from 41percent of the Tar Heel work force in 2006 to 54percent in 2008.
Although the same Mexican-to-black employment transformation has taken place at House of Raeford, census estimates have yet to reflect an outflow of Hispanics from Hoke County–and may never.