June 26, 2011

An uncertain future: Will we lose people?

Rachel Brown

— Six months ago, Mario Reyes’ prayer group at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church filled the sanctuary with just more than 500 people, many of whom stood because they couldn’t find a seat.

Now, everyone sits comfortably, and participation has dropped to about 300. Reyes believes a heightened crackdown on undocumented immigrants is to blame as many of the parishioners have either left the state or are afraid to get out in their vehicles for fear they could be caught at a roadblock and deported. Getting caught going to or from church is not unheard of.

“Families don’t often go places other than their own houses because they are afraid of encountering the police,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “The problem undocumented residents face is there are repercussions in all aspects (of life) — social, political, economical, recreational, family-related and cultural.”

Some argue House Bill 87, the state’s new immigration law which begins going into effect on July 1, is unfair to undocumented residents who have lived nearly their entire lives here or that it is unconstitutional because it usurps federal law. Others say it is a long overdue response to years of looking the other way while immigrants enter the country illegally.

Regardless of the politics involved, one thing many say is certain is the crackdown is sending a large number of Hispanics packing.

Reyes attributes their leaving to fear of House Bill 87, as well as a new interpretation of an old law that now means a person caught driving without a license can be taken to jail and fingerprinted, thus cueing police to his or her immigration status.

Many church members have fled the Dalton area for Illinois, Washington state or their native country, he said. Those who are staying often avoid going places that require them to be in a vehicle, he said.

Elizabeth Velasquiz, who is a member of St. Joseph’s, struggled through tears to explain her own family’s situation — and her fears that her loved ones will be divided across the Western Hemisphere as the state cracks down on undocumented immigrants.

“We’re very family-oriented and that’s our culture, we tend to stick together and bond. So if one has to leave, probably the other one will have to leave,” she said. “See, because I’m legal but my husband is not, and we will have to go back to our countries. His country will be Guatemala and mine will be Mexico, and we’re growing a family here, so we have that fear. We’re staying here to see what happens, but (if he is caught) ... I know he will have to get deported.

“I’m living my life right now with that fear that that will happen, and I know my husband has not done anything wrong. I know he came illegally here, but he is a hard-working man and he has not done any harm to the country in any way.”

Signs of exodus

David Boyle, a professor of social work at Dalton State College and co-author of a 2009 book documenting the Latino influence on Dalton, said accurately gauging how many Hispanics are leaving Dalton is impossible. He estimated, based on his own experiences researching and interacting with Dalton’s Latino population, that as many as 40 percent of local Hispanics are undocumented.

“There is no way to know because it is a hidden population,” he said. “If they’re undocumented, they’re not counted in the system. So, we don’t know how many are there before they started leaving.”

However, they are leaving, he said. He said his students who have undocumented friends or family members have three kinds of plans. The first is to move to a nearby state. The second is moving to New Mexico or another southwestern state. The third is to return to their native country.

He knows of many who have already left.

“Through my personal knowledge and friends of students, it would be dozens, several dozen,” he said. “If I were guessing, I would say leaving Dalton would be 2,000 or 3,000 people.”

According to census figures, there were 15,891 Hispanics in Dalton in 2010 while the city’s total population was 33,128. Whitfield County’s population was 102,599 with 32,471 Hispanics.

Father Paul Williams of St. Joseph’s said the church doesn’t ask about immigration status, but he estimates from what he knows anecdotally that about 10 percent of Dalton’s Hispanics are undocumented. Since 2000, the church has baptized about 6,800 people, meaning at least that many were born in the United States, he said. The church is 6,688 families strong and is home to an estimated 15,000. All but two of the church’s eight weekly masses are in Spanish.

The active membership, however, is shrinking, either because members are staying at home out of fear of being caught by police or because they’ve left the area entirely. Word spread quickly after several of the members were detained at roadblocks on their way to or from a church service, he said, and so did fear. Many families waited until their children finished school for the summer to make a move, he said.

“(Prayer group leaders are) telling me that they have seen five to 10 families a week (leave) since Memorial Day,” Williams said. “These are active members of the church who have been participating for years who are now leaving out of fear of the immigration law.”

America Gruner, president of the Dalton-based Coalition of Latino Leaders (CLILA), said enrollment in the organization’s English and citizenship classes is declining. A belief that roadblocks have become “a road to deportation” as well as anxiety about the new law are driving people from the state, she said.

The beginner’s English class used to have about 25 participants and the intermediate class about 30, but in recent classes there have been as few as three. Nine are enrolled in the advanced class, but only four came on a recent Saturday, she said.

“The citizenship class has also dropped, but not as much,” she said.

As much as people fear deportment, they’re also reluctant to return to their country of origin, several people said. Gruner said many will not return to Mexico because they fear the violence there. Williams said a lot of Hispanics are waiting until after July 1 to see whether the crackdown is really as severe as feared.

Some residents have claimed for years that Hispanics are leaving Dalton. If the number of baptisms at St. Joseph’s church are any indication, many families did vacate the area during the worst of the economic slump. For example, baptisms for the most part rose every year from 2000 to 2007, peaking at 731. They then declined to 680 in 2008 and 600 in 2009 before rising to 630 in 2010. The church has performed 170 baptisms so far this year. However, the number of confirmations and marriages continued to rise or at least remain steady from 2007 to 2010.

School enrollment

Not knowing how many Hispanics are leaving presents some planning issues for local school officials.

Dalton Board of Education Chairman Steve Williams said the city school system is considering paying for additions to local schools as planners tinker with the idea of rezoning students to address overcrowding at Dalton Middle School.

“Are people really leaving town? If they are, what kind of numbers are leaving town?” he said. “I don’t know anybody that’s leaving but ... I’ve got a lot of Hispanic clients so I asked the question. And yeah, folks are leaving town.”

However, when they leave, they may in some cases leave the children behind with other relatives, Gruner said. Public schools are required by law to educate children without asking for proof of citizenship or legal status.

School officials said they make staffing allotments based on March enrollment numbers and won’t know what impact the new law and people’s fears surrounding it will have on student enrollment until school resumes. Dalton Public Schools spokeswoman Debra Cooper said the district is “monitoring the situation,” but so far the only numbers officials have to go on show a 2 percent growth in enrollment over the past year.

“Other monitoring sources are principals, data clerks and even the summer feeding participation numbers,” she said. “There was about a 2 percent growth over the past school year instead of a decline. Typically, there are always students who leave each summer, but they are usually replaced with new students, so numbers have been trending toward the same level each year.”

City Park School Principal Phil Jones said his school had to add a kindergarten class for the upcoming year and that classes will be filled to the maximum based on the numbers they currently have.

“I think most families were waiting until school was out to make their decisions (on whether to stay in Dalton),” he said. “We’ve been hearing (Hispanics are leaving) for the past several years, and then you see the enrollment trends for the district. It hasn’t gone down.”

Whitfield County Schools Assistant Superintendent Judy Gilreath said the county system likewise doesn’t have any evidence to show a decline in enrollment.

“I can’t tell yet,” she said. “We don’t know until they don’t show up or we get a request for their records from another school.”

Some students said one or more parents have already left.

“My dad left just recently,” said Bryan Santana, a 16-year-old who said he was born an American citizen. “The new law came, and he left. He was here most of his whole life.”

“Little kids are afraid,” said Claudia Delcid, 20. “What is their life going to be like without their parents?”

The bottom line

Some native Dalton residents say business is down, either because Hispanics are leaving the area or because they’re afraid to get out to go to the store.

“80 percent of my business is Hispanics,” said Betty James, owner of Brent’s Florist on McGhee Drive. “They’re leaving because they’re afraid.”

James said she couldn’t estimate how much business she’s lost in the last couple of months, but she did say she personally knows several Hispanic customers who have shared their stories. One woman is moving with her children to Oklahoma after her husband was arrested at a road block and set to be deported, she said.

Employees at the Value Pawn on Walnut Avenue said their business has been drastically reduced, and they believe it’s because of the fear the new law has created. Nohemi Cervantes said business is normally up this time of year.

“Now it’s like nothing. We’re dead,” she said. “More than 50 percent of our customers were Hispanics, so we’ve dropped a lot.”

Yuli Hernandez agreed.

“They are the ones who will buy the most,” she said. “Most of the white people will come and pawn things, and the ones who will buy are Hispanics.”

Dan Hocker of Bates Furniture on Henderson Street said the business has about $850,000 in outstanding loans to Hispanic customers. He worries the business will have to write off a lot of that if Hispanics who are paying on their bills leave town out of fear. Some have already left. When they do, they often sell their furniture to pay for their family members to return home while the business is left to absorb the loss, he said.

One customer, whom Hocker described as an “honest guy” who always paid his bills on time, was deported to El Salvador. Hocker said the man had a tax identification number issued by the IRS and had obtained a loan from SunTrust Bank. He didn’t know the man had been deported until the payments stopped coming.

“We lost about $4,000 in that particular individual sale,” he said. “We could lose who knows how much (because of stepped-up immigration enforcement). As much as 50 percent of our business is with the Hispanic community.”