The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Fearful she will be deported and separated from her two young sons, Vilma Baltazar steeled her family for a long journey from her small apartment in Chamblee back to her native country, Guatemala.
Vino Wong firstname.lastname@example.org Henry Zamora, pastor of The Harvest 3 church in Doraville, leads his congregation in morning worship on a recent Sunday. The Pentacostal minister is concerned about the effect a tough new immigration law in Georgia will have on church membership and charity efforts like the church pantry.
The single mother is one of many illegal immigrants in metro Atlanta who say they are fleeing Georgia before the state’s tough new immigration enforcement law takes effect on July 1. Others say they are making similar plans in case opponents of the new law are unable to block it in the courts.
These developments show Georgia’s new law is having its desired impact, even weeks before it is scheduled to become law. But the law also is starting to produce a ripple effect.
Businesses that cater to the region’s Hispanic residents say the new law has sown fear among immigrants, scaring away their customers and employees. A grocery store chain that serves Hispanic immigrants says the new law has led to sharp cuts in sales at some of its locations, forcing it to consider closing one of its spots. And the pastors of local Hispanic churches say some of their parishioners are leaving Georgia and taking the donations that support charitable causes with them.
All of these people are connected in some way to a part of north DeKalb County that is home to the largest percentage of foreign-born residents in Georgia at 74 percent, according to census estimates. The area is bordered by Buford Highway, Peachtree Road, Clairmont Road and Dresden Drive and includes parts of Chamblee.
Most of the people living in that census tract were born in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico and are not U.S. citizens, census records show. The Census Bureau does not track immigration status.
Signed into law last month, House Bill 87 authorizes police to investigate the immigration status of suspects under certain conditions and arrest illegal immigrants and take them to jail. It also punishes people who knowingly harbor or transport illegal immigrants while committing another crime or use fake identification to get a job in Georgia.
Supporters of the law say the exodus of illegal immigrants shows it is working, though they said the tough economy could also be a factor. The state needed to pass the law, they said, because the federal government has failed to secure the nation’s borders, allowing illegal immigrants to stream into Georgia.
A recent estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center puts the number of illegal immigrants in Georgia at 425,000, the seventh-highest among the states.
“Businesses and individuals — including migrant workers — have absolutely nothing to fear if they are in compliance with the law,” said Republican Rep. Rich Golick of Smyrna, who co-sponsored HB 87 and is one of its chief supporters.
At the same time, the pain some metro Atlanta businesses and churches are experiencing because of HB 87 now was expected, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that advocates for tighter immigration controls.
“There will always be short-term pain when you rip the Band-Aid off,” he said. “There is no way to avoid that. If you have allowed the immigration law to go unenforced, when you finally get around to enforcing the law, there will be some short-term pain for people.”
With the departure of illegal immigrants from Georgia, there will be less of a burden on the state’s taxpayer-funded schools and hospitals, Krikorian said.
Georgia’s new law targets people precisely like Baltazar, who illegally crossed over the Mexican border and into the United States with her family eight years ago.
She said she came with her husband and young son seeking work here after their home in Guatemala was destroyed in a storm. She found work cleaning houses and gave birth to a second son in the United States. She settled with her family in an apartment in Chamblee and then separated from her husband, who moved back to Guatemala.
Baltazar recently showed reporters into her nearly barren apartment. In the middle of the floor sat an enormous cardboard box filled with her family’s belongings. She had addressed the package — and a huge silver television set wrapped in plastic beside it — for Guatemala.
Baltazar said she is preparing to flee the country by the end of this month. The reason: She drives to work without a license and is worried she will get arrested and deported in connection with the tough new law.
“We are working,” she said in Spanish. “I believe the law should be for criminals, not for us.”
Baltazar is particularly fearful about getting separated from her two boys, ages 12 and 6. She waited until they finished school this year before preparing to move. Neither boy wants to leave.
“I don’t want to go to Guatemala. My friends will miss me,” said 6-year-old Brandon Bautista, who attended a DeKalb County elementary school.
Baltazar and her sons are not alone. Officials at the Guatemalan, El Salvadoran and Honduran consulates in Georgia say many more people are seeking passports for themselves and dual citizenship for their children so they can return to their home countries amid fears concerning HB 87.
For example, the El Salvadoran consulate in Woodstock is experiencing a 30 percent increase in demand for help, or about 30 more people per day, said consul Claudia Valenzuela. And on a recent Friday, scores of Guatemalans packed the lobby of their country’s consulate office off Buford Highway Northeast. Several said they were preparing to leave Georgia because of HB 87.
Among them were Romelia Diaz and her husband, Hipolito, both undocumented immigrants who live in Canton. They were waiting in line at the consulate for a passport for Hipolito and dual citizenship for their 2-year-old daughter, who was strapped to her mother’s back with a long blanket. Hipolito said he was worried the new law would cost him his job at a chicken processing plant.
“I don’t want to go, but the law is difficult,” his wife said in Spanish.
An official with the Mexican Consulate in Georgia said his organization has mounted a campaign to educate people about the new law. Demand for passports and other services has been normal lately, the official said.
Still, some Mexican nationals, including Maria Guadalupe Briones, say they are preparing to leave Georgia because of HB 87.
She is planning to move with her husband and three young children from a two-bedroom apartment in Doraville back to Mexico in July. Local police have already arrested her husband twice for driving without a license, she said. Meanwhile, she worries about returning to Mexico because of the drug violence there. She wondered aloud about Mexican drug cartels kidnapping her U.S.-born children for ransom.
“We don’t want to go to Mexico,” she said in Spanish as she clutched her 5-year-old daughter on her lap. “We hope the new law will not take effect.”
Arizona experienced an exodus of immigrants after it enacted a similar law last year. An estimated 100,000 Hispanics, mostly Mexicans, left the state between January and November of last year, partly because of Arizona’s law, according to a report released last year by BBVA Research, which based its findings on U.S. census data.
Dora Polanco has been witnessing a similar exodus from her perch in the ticket booth just off Buford Highway at the El Expreso bus stop in Chamblee. She said some of the Hispanic immigrants who approach her counter are leaving Georgia on buses to New York City, where mass transit is more plentiful.
A native of Costa Rica, Polanco sympathizes with the plight of the immigrants, particularly the ones who tell her they are fearful of returning to Mexico amid the drug violence there. But she is also irritated with people who enter the United States illegally and take advantage of taxpayer-funded resources here, including hospitals. She said she and her husband are both U.S. citizens who work hard and pay their taxes.
“That’s not right when you pay taxes and the others don’t,” said Polanco, who lives in Snellville. “I don’t want this country to be poor like my country.”
Many other state residents feel strongly about illegal immigration. Charles Shafer Jr., who lives northeast of Chamblee in Lawrenceville, said he was forced to shut down his home construction business years ago because he could not compete with others he suspected were hiring illegal immigrants.
Shafer supports Georgia’s new law and is glad it is inspiring illegal immigrants to leave the state.
“We are a nation of laws,” he said. “When they come over here like they have, they have not in my mind respected any law of the United States — that they claim to want to be so much a part of.”
Meanwhile, the fallout from Georgia’s new law is starting to sap local church congregations. The Rev. Silverio Domingo said two of the Hispanic families in his congregation of about 60 people at Iglesia Bautista Vida Abundante on Clairmont Road have already fled to Kansas. Other parishioners are preparing to leave Georgia before the law takes effect, he said.
Domingo conducts his services in Spanish for a Hispanic congregation at Clairmont Baptist Church. His church relies on its parishioners for donations to help feed the hungry and pay for rent for the needy in the surrounding area. Domingo has started to cancel some of his services because of spotty attendance. He said some of his parishioners are in the country illegally.
“They are afraid,” Domingo said. “They don’t want to be exposed.”
Henry Zamora, the pastor of The Harvest 3 church in Doraville, is facing the same problems with his Hispanic congregation of about 350 people. He said one of the families in his Pentecostal church has already fled to Maryland. Another is planning to leave for Mexico soon.
Zamora showed a reporter his church’s pantry, where food donations are stored for the needy. Some of the shelves were empty. He blamed that on a drop in offerings at his church because some of his parishioners fear driving to church with the new law about to take effect. He added that his church does not ask people seeking food about their immigration status.
“Everybody is scared,” he said, adding about his church’s charity work: “If people are going to leave, how are we going to continue this?”
Local businessmen also are struggling with fallout from the new law.
Maria Garcia, the office manager for a chain of grocery stores that cater to Hispanics, said four of her employees have already fled over fears they could be deported through the new law.
Meanwhile, her company’s El Progreso stores on Buford Highway and Chamblee Dunwoody Road have lost roughly 15 percent of their sales since late last year, when lawmakers first started talking about adopting an Arizona-style law to crack down on illegal immigration. Other stores in the Atlanta area chain lost between 20 and 30 percent since then, she said.
She attributes the losses to fears surrounding HB 87. The family-owned business is now considering closing its Forest Park location because of the drop in sales, she said.
“We have a lot of customers saying, ‘This is the last time we are coming to your store. … We are moving to other states or Mexico.’ We are seeing that almost every day,” she said.
Carlos Chavez is also worried. He said the future of the Mexican sandwich counter he owns in the Plaza Fiesta mall off Buford Highway is at stake.
He attributed a 10 percent drop in his sales over the last week at his Puras Tortas restaurant partly to HB 87. On Tuesday, his sales were $250 less than normal, he said. Chavez has already talked to his three employees about cutting their hours.
“I am making my next payroll this coming Sunday,” he said this past week, “and I am hoping I can make it.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
This article is the result of a collaboration between The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Mundo Hispanico. A team of reporters and photographers from these newspapers interviewed immigrants, business owners and church leaders in the north DeKalb County area, as well as foreign consular officials, over the past two weeks. Some of the interviews were done in Spanish. Some were done in English. The reporters also reviewed census records and maps.