¿Qué pasa?

What’s up is that Hispanic immigration to North Carolina is going down. Some are returning home or moving elsewhere.
By Edward Martin

Morning passes quietly at the corner of Church and Oak in Biscoe. A block away on the main drag, a logging truck groans, downshifting for one of the town’s two stoplights. Then the stillness returns. In a small brick building, the smell of cilantro, onion and chilies fills the dining room — 24 chairs, four green-backed booths, two yellow-and-red parrot figurines, one with sunglasses on its beak, and no customers. “ ¡Despiérta America!” chimes an announcer on the Spanish-language channel between celebrity interviews and a performance by a soulful singer backed by a mariachi band. It’s “Wake Up America!” on Univision.

Fortunato Romero ignores the TV playing in the tienda y restaurante — store and restaurant — he opened in the early 1990s just ahead of a wave that was about to engulf even places such as this eastern Montgomery County town of 1,754, whose main claim to fame is that it’s three miles south of Star, by one measure the geographic center of the state. By 2008, North Carolina’s Hispanic population — legal and illegal — had grown from barely noticeable to 700,000 or more. That’s nearly one person in 10.

Their social, political and, most of all, economic impact has been astonishing. In the last 10 years, Latinos have filled one of three new jobs statewide. “We’d be in a pickle without them,” says Dave Simpson, Raleigh lobbyist for Carolinas AGC, the construction trade association. They hold half or more of the jobs in specialties such as framing and masonry. In 2006, the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC Chapel Hill forecast that the economic impact of Hispanics in the state would reach $18 billion this year. Now, though, something nobody expected is happening.

“ ¡Despiérta America!” But there are few in Romero’s restaurant and store this morning to wake up. The sole customer has been a lone Anglo who wanders in, orders enchiladas verdes and, after eating, departs without leaving a tip. Romero, 50, slides into a corner booth. He talks, laughing often and easily, the accent of his native Mexico City still strong after 30 years in the U.S. The hands of the clock clasp as noon draws near. “Nine months ago, we never take a lunch break until 3 o’clock because we have lots of people here this time of day. Now, you see, we don’t have any customers. We are down 40% — 50% — or more. Where are they?” He shrugs.

No one is certain why or to what extent, but Hispanics are abandoning North Carolina or at least arriving at a markedly slower rate. Much of the evidence is anecdotal, but one thing is clear: After two decades in which the state had the nation’s fastest Hispanic growth — 400% in the 1990s alone, now 12th in Latino population — it is losing its luster as one of the most accommodating places for them.

The reason? Recession and a statewide unemployment rate that reached 10.7% in February are obvious suspects. Plant closings and construction slowdowns have staggered industries that employ tens of thousands of Hispanics. Plummeting home building has reduced the need for carpenters and landscapers. Stricter enforcement of immigration laws is another factor. “If you’re unemployed and on top of that they’re hunting you down, why bother?” asks Tony Asion, president of the Raleigh-based Hispanic advocacy group El Pueblo. More than 4,000 were deported in 2008, and political opposition to Latinos who have entered the country illegally is hardening.

“We do know the rate of immigration has slowed,” says Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Hispanic Center, a nonprofit that studies the impact of the U.S. Latino population. Nationwide, he says, the figure has dropped from about 800,000 a year in the early 2000s to fewer than 500,000 last year. The Pew Center estimates about 11.9 million Hispanics were in the U.S. illegally in 2008, down from 12.4 million the previous year. Department of Homeland Security spokesman Michael Kegan says Lopez’ figures mirror his. “It’s the first time we’ve seen a drop since we started keeping data. I’d say the economy has a lot to do with it but also stepped-up border security and increased enforcement.”

Still another factor is at play: success, at least on the immigrants’ terms. Many came to North Carolina for work but never intended to stay. “A lot who are here, especially recent arrivals, are single males with no families and no strong ties,” Lopez says. “If they have children, they have some ties, but even they come with the purpose of earning some money, sending it home to help their families and also to invest in a small company, shop or to buy a house.” In this state, more than $2 billion a year routinely crosses borders, remitted — “rapido, economica, seguro,” a sign in Romero’s store promises — to families in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries.

From a base in Greensboro, Eric Jonas, a field organizer for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, works with immigrants who harvest tobacco, cucumbers and other crops. There were an estimated 86,000 last year, the state Employment Security Commission says, down from a high of 143,000 in 1990. “I personally know some who’re convinced that what they’ve saved and what they’ve sent back over the years is going to have to be enough. They’re ready to go home.”

One of the enigmas of this type of immigration is that trends emerge from the shadows only after they’ve become history. The Kenan study and other sources estimate that three-quarters of the Hispanics who moved to North Carolina in the last decade came to this country illegally. So many shield themselves from authorities that there’s scant census or other data to accurately reflect short-term changes in the state’s Latino population. But there are anecdotes aplenty. On Six Forks Road, a strip of fast-food restaurants and small businesses in north Raleigh, a red, green and white flag flutters in front of a two-story building of desert-tan brick: the Mexican consulate. Sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and vans disgorge families. Children play tag in an airy lobby under a reproduction of artist Diego Rivera’s dark-eyed niño in sombrero and bibbed overalls. Parents squirm, squinting at paperwork.

A few blocks away at an annex on Atlantic Avenue, the scene is frenetic. Consular workers in lime-green vests flag traffic, and signs in Spanish at surrounding businesses warn people not to clog their lots. A line snakes out the building to the parking lot, where a man sleeps, his feet poking outside the camper shell of a pickup truck. Some arrive before dawn to get in line. Inside, on benches and standing around walls, nearly 100 people clutch manila envelopes and small photographs of themselves.

Mexico opened this office last year after the consulate on Six Forks Road, which opened in 2001, was swamped with immigrants seeking passports and other documents. It is a place of curious twists. Some here, consular officials say, want to return to Mexico but entered the U.S. illegally decades ago as young, single men and women. Now married with families, they’re without a country, at least on paper, noncitizens here but unable to return home legally. It’s no longer as simple as catching a flight back. A 2007 Homeland Security law requires all travelers flying to Mexico and Canada to have passports. “When I came here 18 months ago, we had fewer than 100 people a day seeking them,” a consular official says. “Now we do 600 a day.” About 150,000 were issued in 2008.

At the consulate, Mexican men and women stand in line with vital records — marriage licenses, birth certificates, hospital bills — to establish dual citizenship for children born in the Carolinas who, under this nation’s birthright law, are U.S. citizens. Others have lost jobs and are broke. “We have a protections department to help our citizens who want to go back to Mexico,” says Sonia Gonzalez, consulate community-relations officer. It provides financial aid for emergencies, plane tickets or other assistance. “A lot want to go because they no longer have money to pay their bills here.”

The state capital is not the only place to trace this shift. The search can lead to urban centers such as Charlotte, where sidewalks along Central Avenue that once bustled with brown men in cowboy hats often are empty now, to small towns and communities in the heartland, where jobs — 206,000 statewide last year — have vanished into the crippling recession.

It’s a sunny afternoon on Northmont Drive in the Chatham County town of Siler City, often mentioned by folks in Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show. There’s little of that show’s gauzy mid-20th century heartland America here now. Dark-haired mothers meet chattering Hispanic children as they leap from school buses. Some houses have for-rent signs in windows; others are vacant. A mile away, Country Living Estates is a treeless trailer park with scores of fading singlewides along streets with names such as Santa Fe Drive. In June 2008, Pittsburg, Tex.-based Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. closed its poultry plant, leaving a weathered gray building with a weedy parking lot recently occupied only by a six- pack of empty Bud Lite bottles. It employed 836 in a town with only about 3,500 jobs. On a visit three years ago, several line supervisors — Hispanics themselves — told Business North Carolina that 95% of the employees were Latinos, many of whom used false documents to get their jobs.

The Census Bureau estimated Siler City’s population last year at just over 8,000, with 45% — about 3,600 — Hispanic. Downtown stores where Mayberry’s Aunt Bee shopped when she was no longer Aunt Bee — Frances Bavier, the actress who played her, retired here in 1973 — closed when America’s main streets withered, then reopened as Hispanic businesses. Some are closing again. “It hurts the whole community,” says Dan Campeau, a poultry specialist in nearby Pittsboro with N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. “Those 800 jobs at Pilgrim’s Pride were about 25% of the total. They were paying taxes, rents, mortgages. Now they’re gone.”

In neighboring Lee County are other signs of a restless Hispanic population. On another afternoon in the cool, softly lit La Cabana, a restaurant and club on industrial North Horner Boulevard in Sanford, owner Alejandro Arroyo, 51, recalls busier times. “Until about a year ago we were serving at least 150 on Mondays through Thursday and on the weekends maybe 250. They would spend an average of $14 to $15. Now we might have 100 on a good day.” In 2006, Oscar Torres, a self-described ilegal who worked in a Sanford poultry plant, had taken a reporter on a late-night tour of Latino clubs and hot spots, including La Cabana. Arroyo now closes at 9 and has cut employees from 10 to six. He operates a second La Cabana a few blocks away. It’s the same story there.

“I know five families — three worked at the poultry plant in Siler City — who’ve gone back to Mexico. One was my cousin and his wife. When the plant closed, they couldn’t get another job, and if you don’t have a job here, you can’t put food on the table. Hispanic people did not have much money here, and they were sending it back to Mexico to build a house, buy some land or whatever. Even if you don’t have a job [there], you are with your people and you can survive. You don’t need to pay so many bills.”

Not all go willingly. At the brooding, gray-walled Mecklenburg County Jail complex in downtown Charlotte, former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph became one of the nation’s first lawmen to enforce 287(g), a section of a 1996 federal immigration law that has become a rallying point for Hispanic activists. Since Pendergraph started enforcing the law in 2006, more than 6,000 illegal immigrants have begun their deportation process in the electronically sealed room deputies call “the capture area.” Anybody arrested for an offense serious enough to land them in jail is booked, fingerprinted and asked a series of questions that include: “What is your country of origin?”

The sequence can lead to deportation, sheriff’s spokeswoman Julia Rush says, though not, as Hispanics often contend, for minor infractions such as most traffic charges, for which they’re cited at the scene to appear in court and allowed to go on their way. But violators frequently disregard citations, she adds, prompting judges to issue failure-to-appear warrants.

Arrested on one of those, an illegal immigrant would be taken to jail and, after paying a fine and serving the sentence, turned over to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Seven other counties have launched 287(g) programs, and since January, five have started efforts that resemble them in many ways. “People are tired of being treated as criminals and deported when they run a traffic light,” says Luis Pastor, CEO of Durham-based Latino Community Credit Union, which opened a Charlotte branch in December. Nevertheless, calls for even stricter enforcement echo through the state.

Another reason Hispanics now find North Carolina less hospitable than it once seemed stems from a backlash over driver licenses. Considered one of the easiest states in which to get a license, an estimated 260,000 Hispanics obtained them without valid identification. In 2004, the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles began refusing to accept Mexican identification cards, and two years later, legislators required applicants to have a visa or valid Social Security number.

Five years after DMV offices were jammed with Latinos — underground ID mills were grinding out fake papers for $30 a set — one on Arrowood Road in Charlotte provided a dramatic contrast in early February. Equipped with take-a-number paging systems and rows of examiner’s cubicles from the boom days, it had two drivers being examined — no appointments, no lines.

Biscoe, perched on the edge of Uwharrie National Forest, got its name more than 100 years ago from a local lumber merchant, and in the 1980s and ’90s, its logging and sawmills attracted a new breed of worker. Fortunato Romero caters to them and others of their ethnicity, who, hard times or not, cling to their culture. Prayer candles— the Holy Child of Atocha, $1.79 — line a shelf near 5-pound bags of tortillas, baked by El Comal Inc. in Winston-Salem. On a rack, a $250 cake that Romero baked awaits a Mexican girl’s quinceañera, her 15th-birthday, coming-of-age party. But if the party is over for many Hispanics in North Carolina, what are the implications for the state economy?

Latino advocates estimate 20,000 small businesses such as Romero’s have opened in the state since the Hispanic boom began in the 1990s. Some businesses, such as Pastor’s credit union, are not small. Begun in 2000, it has seven offices in six cities across the state, $100 million in outstanding loans and 51,000 members, 70% of whom never before used a bank.

Romero says many of Biscoe’s Latinos have moved to South Carolina, which has, as does Virginia, a reputation for less aggressive immigration-law enforcement. In fact, many Hispanics leaving North Carolina might not be heading home but to other states they feel offer more opportunity. Jim Johnson, one of the authors of the 2006 Kenan Institute study, concurs. “There may be some return migration, but more are moving around within the U.S. where enforcement rules are not as draconian.”

“North Carolina has been a high-immigrant-growth state for 20 years, but in the last seven it hasn’t seen the growth like in places like Arkansas and Nebraska,” says Lopez, the Pew Center expert. Like North Carolina, those states have many jobs in low-wage, low-skill industries such as meat processing. “The new destination states are in the Midwest and the prairie states. California is an ‘old’ immigration state. North Carolina has now matured as an immigration state compared to some of those other places.”

If a diaspora of the state’s Hispanic population has started, it will drain off some of the state’s deep pool of cheap labor. About 40% of the state’s Latino work force is employed in construction, and roughly 30% is in agriculture, manufacturing, wholesale and retail jobs. “We’re building a school here in Durham, and I was there the other day,” Johnson says. “There were 63 people working on the site, and all of them — every last one — were Hispanic.” They work “the three D jobs: difficult, dangerous and dirty jobs natives don’t like to do, and we’re going to have problems in the not too distant future if we lose them.” The sheer number of aging baby boomers, he says, makes the situation even more serious. “Who’s going to be around to do the work?”

In the current economic climate, it might be out-of-work and humbled native Tar Heels. Job fairs held by fast-food chains and other low-wage employers in Charlotte, hit hard by layoffs at Bank of America, Wachovia and other white-collar companies, have attracted thousands. One in February to fill 500 mostly service jobs at Great Wolf Lodge, a hotel and water park opening in Concord, drew 2,000 people. Resentment against Hispanics also has risen with recession. But what will happen when the recession ends? People willing to take any job to prevent losing their homes are not likely to make careers of them when they can do better. According to Simpson, the Carolinas AGC lobbyist, North Carolina will regain its appeal as a place for Hispanics. “I guarantee you this: As quickly as some folks left because of our sickening economy, they’ll be back when there’s a turnaround.”

That might be too late for some. The Chatham County school bus has gone, and children in Country Living Estates have parked their backpacks and come outside to play on a warm spring afternoon. ¿Su nombre? “Alexis,” a boy of about 6 replies shyly. “Want to see my dog?” He scampers across a red-clay yard with a barking puppy. Like many yards here, it posts a for-sale sign — in Spanish.