Hispanics, Businesses That Serve Them, Hit Hard By Downturn

Hispanics, businesses that serve them hit hard by downturn

Victor Manuel Ramos
Sentinel Staff Writer
October 3, 2008 Alma

Valdez of Foto Estudio Azteca, a party-supply store in Apopka, says the economic downturn is hurting Hispanic customers. On a recent day, only one client stopped in the store. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda, Orlando Sentinel / October 2, 2008)

Alma Valdez sat alone in a backroom of Foto Estudio Azteca, a Mexican party-supply store in Apopka that sells items for baptisms, weddings and quinceaeras.

She was tying tiny balloons to festive table centerpieces that no one seemed in the mood to buy.

Business is slow in this northwest Orange County city that has been a magnet for immigrants since the 1970s.

“We are very close to despair, because we are not even worrying about selling more at this point. We are worrying about how we are going to stay open,” said Valdez, 25, whose mother owns the shop. “This is the worst it's been in the five years this store has been here.”

Other shops at Mi Mxico plaza, where few cars were parked in a lot that once was full, are feeling Valdez's pain.

Two studies released Thursday by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C., shed light on the impact of the nation's economic downturn coupled with the aggressive enforcement of immigration laws that has led to massive deportations.

Fewer immigrants are entering the U.S. illegally, reversing a decade-old trend of spiked border crossings and people overstaying their visas.

The Pew analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data puts the nationwide population of “unauthorized immigrants” at 11.9 million in 2008. That's an estimated drop of about a half-million from peak numbers last year.

The number of immigrants entering the country illegally fell to about 500,000 a year from 2005 to 2008 down from an average of 800,000 a year from 2000 to 2004.

Now, more immigrants are entering the country legally than illegally.

The second report shows that immigrants who have not become U.S. citizens whether they are in the country legally or not have seen a decline in median household income while all households saw a slight increase in wages. Those immigrants earned about $1,400 less in 2007 than in 2005.

Immigrant workers, particularly Hispanics, have been hit hard by the economic crisis because they were overrepresented in manufacturing and construction jobs, researchers said.

“For Latinos and for foreign-born workers, the driver has been the housing boom, followed now by the housing bust,” said Rakesh Kochhar, one of the studies' co-authors. “They had very good times in the not too distant past, but since the end of 2006 as the market has gone south, so has the income of Latinos.”

For supporters of immigration enforcement, the numbers confirm that their calls for action are working.

“People have always said 'Change the incentives, and they will leave,' ” said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., group that favors tougher restrictions. “With this increased enforcement and the downturn in the economy, we have a test of that situation and it seems to show that with changing incentives people leave.”

But those measures, say immigrant advocates, have very real consequences.

“People are suffering more. Part of it is economic suffering, but it is a suffering of their spirits also,” said Sister Ann Kendrick, an immigrant advocate with the Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka. “The thought that you will get ahead if you come here and work hard and do the right thing seems lost for many of them.”

At the Mi Mxico plaza, where the sidewalk traffic at noon consisted of an immigrant beggar asking for a dollar to buy a taco, Valdez wondered how much longer she and her family could hold on.

She and her mother are legal immigrants, but not all of their customers are.

“There are whole days when no one comes in,” said Valdez, looking at the shop filled with colorful piatas.

And when people do walk in, they spend very little, she said. Wednesday's sales, for example, amounted to $21.30 not even enough for a tank of gas.

Vctor Manuel Ramos can be reached at vramos@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6186.


Related links:

Hispanic immigrants cherish old, new cultural ties

A snapshot of the area's immigrants

Immigrants want to blend in, keep mother tongue