Metro Atlanta’s immigrant population is shifting, if not shrinking.
Latinos are leaving their once-thriving neighborhoods in Gwinnett and Cobb counties in search of friendlier alternatives. It shows in business closures, arrest statistics, church attendance and something as simple as a busy highway turned deserted at night.
A shortage of jobs is behind this exodus. Stepped-up immigration enforcement also is a factor.
In November, the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department became the fourth law enforcement agency in Georgia to screen inmates for immigration status and hold the undocumented for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Cobb, Hall and Whitfield are the other counties.
Gwinnett County deputies identified 464 inmates who were in the country illegally during the first few months of the program, which is known as 287(g), Sheriff Butch Conway said. Jailers noticed another surprising outcome of the fledgling program: Foreign-born inmates, a category that encompasses illegal immigrants and legal U.S. residents born in other countries, decreased by 32 percent since the program’s inception, compared to the same time frame in 2008.
The sharp decline might signal that illegal immigrants are leaving Gwinnett County to elude potential deportation, or unauthorized immigrants are avoiding contact with law enforcement, either by committing fewer crimes or by making themselves scarce, the sheriff said.
“It’s the proper outcome,” Conway said. “At this point I expect it to continue, probably exponentially.”
Cobb County deputies have handed over more than 6,000 suspected illegal immigrants to federal officials since 2007, when Sheriff Neil Warren pioneered the 287(g) program in Georgia. Over the past two years, there has been a 22 percent drop in undocumented immigrants booked into the Cobb jail.
Yet the bad economy might have as much to do with the recent exodus of Latinos as stepped-up immigration enforcement. Population shifts in the illegal immigrant community are difficult to measure and even harder to explain, said University of Georgia demographer Douglas Bachtel, who studies the Hispanic population.
“The data is problematic because a lot of Hispanics are American citizens, and also because of the difficulty of counting those folks if they are illegal,” Bachtel said.
One of the best ways to track the immigrant population is to analyze public school data, since most Hispanic immigrants enroll their children in school, Bachtel said.
Three out of four of the nation’s unauthorized immigrants are Hispanic, and nearly half of them are couples with children, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
The percentage of Hispanic students enrolled in public schools has remained flat in metro Atlanta counties over the past three years.
A state school data analysis provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed enrollment in an English language program for non-native speakers has leveled off in Cobb and Gwinnett counties after years of steady growth. These are counties that have 287(g) programs in place.
Meanwhile, English to Speakers of Other Languages enrollment grew in other counties that do not have similar immigration enforcement measures. DeKalb and Douglas counties saw substantial growth in ESOL enrollment, while modest growth was recorded in Hall, Cherokee and Fulton counties.
Elizabeth Webb, division director for innovative programs at the state Department of Education, said English language learners tend to be a very mobile population. However, the reason they move is not something the state or county school systems track.
“It is very anecdotal,” Webb said. “We don’t have any data to share about what motivations are, but I do think it’s mostly economic.”
There are signs that churches, businesses and service providers in the Latino community have experienced a traffic slowdown.
Businesses in Cobb and Gwinnett have suffered staggering losses, said David Ruiz, who owns Shalom Distributors, an Atlanta-based company that supplies dozens of Hispanic grocery stores, gift shops and flea markets with their wares. After Cobb County implemented 287(g), stores that Ruiz supplied there plunged from 30 to five. Ruiz expected similar fallout in Gwinnett.
“The customers are leaving, they go to other states where there is no persecution or they go back to their country,” Ruiz said. “At Spanish neighborhoods, you see a lot of empty businesses.”
Along Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Buford Highway, corridors in Gwinnett where businesses that cater to Hispanics are prevalent, shopkeepers said there is a marked drop-off in customers. Gwinnett has the largest Hispanic population in the state and hundreds of retailers who service a primarily foreign-born clientele.
The Aleysa’s Bridal owner, who declined to give her name, acknowledged she is three months behind on rent for her space at Gwinnett Horizon’s shopping center. Customers evaporated around December, when she witnessed increased police patrols and so many blue lights from traffic stops that “it was like Christmas.”
“Before this area was very good,” she said. “The economy was bad, but we kept going.”
The woman now is considering putting her colorful quinceanera dresses and bridal gowns into storage and closing her shop.
“This situation kills us because people don’t want to come in this area,” she said.
Victor Serrano, who owns a Magic Muffler shop on North Norcross Tucker Road, noticed a decline in Hispanic customers as far back as 2007. That year, a new state law was enacted sanctioning employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants and denied some state services to adults who couldn’t verify they were in the country legally.
In recent months, Serrano has seen even fewer Hispanic customers, especially those whom he suspects are illegal immigrants because they always pay in cash.
“I’ve heard on the radio some of them aren’t driving or are staying out of areas where they could encounter police,” Serrano said. “They don’t want to run the risk of getting caught.”
Pastor Antonio Mansogo, president of the Atlanta Association of Hispanic Pastors, said attendance is down at many area churches where Hispanics worship. His own church, Ministerio Pentecostal Central in Doraville, has been sending a bus into the community so that would-be worshippers can get to church without risking being arrested for driving without a license.
Mansogo also said Jimmy Carter Boulevard, once full of Hispanic drivers and pedestrians in the early evening, now appears almost deserted after 7 p.m.
Claudia Aguilar, a manager at Huntington Village Apartment complex located just off the same street, said occupancy dropped by 10 percent in the past two or three months. People who gave a 30-day notice said 287(g) is the reason.
“A lot of people are leaving because of this law or because there’s no work,” Aguilar said.
The Latin American Association, which has outreach centers in Atlanta, Marietta and Norcross, said the demand for services has not diminished. However, within the past six months, the association has fielded more requests from people seeking help with moving out of the area, chief operating officer Jeffrey Tapia said.
Parents have asked for assistance in obtaining passports for their children, who are U.S. citizens, so they can return to their home country.
“It is really a combination of the economy, the lack of jobs, and the effects of 287(g), in particular in Cobb and Gwinnett, that are affecting people,” Tapia said.