Monday, May 9, 2011

Adios, Amigos: Why Are South Carolina's Undocumented Immigrants Leaving? (Columbia Free Times)

Adios, Amigos
Why Are South Carolina's Undocumented Immigrants Leaving?


Issue #24.18 :: 05/04/2011 - 05/10/2011

It’s lunchtime Friday at La Estrella No. 2, a Mexican restaurant and store on Decker Boulevard, and we’re the only people in the place.

This is no gringos-centric, sombrero-decked eatery. It has a butcher shop, as well as a tidy market full of Hispanic food staples — dried chiles, fruits and vegetables, traditional Mexican herbs and spices, candy. The restaurant serves casual, traditional Mexican lunch food. The tortas are huge and carefully made, served with big roasted jalapenos; the tacos are sprinkled with fresh cilantro and just-diced onions. But we’re the only people eating them.

Where is everybody? Why is it empty here? I ask the La Estrella waiter: ¿Porque esta vacio aqui? And why do other restaurants in Columbia that cater to a Latin American clientele seem so empty lately, too?

He shrugs. No hay mucho trabajo, he says. There’s not much work.

You probably saw the headlines: According to the 2010 Census data released last month, South Carolina had one of the country’s fastest growing Hispanic populations over the past decade. The state’s Hispanic population rose from 95,076 to 235,682 between 2000 and 2010, up 148 percent.

But the other side of the story is this: After a mid-decade spike, undocumented immigration, at least, is way down in South Carolina. Since 2007, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study released in February, the state’s undocumented immigrant population has fallen 21 percent.

While experts disagree on just how accurately the undocumented population can be measured, as well as the reasons for the drop, they all agree there are fewer undocumented immigrants in the state now than three years ago.

State legislators are about to pass a strict immigration law modeled on Arizona’s “papers, please” law. Yet because of the bad economy, a 2008 state immigration law and other factors, the number of undocumented immigrants in South Carolina is already dropping. Are legislators trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist? And what does fewer undocumented immigrants mean for the state?

Home Plate

The restaurant industry isn’t a bad barometer of immigration in South Carolina.

Fifteen years ago, the Midlands didn’t have much in the way of taquerias. What it had was a handful of Mexican-American family restaurants with menus leaning to combination plates and ground beef-based fillings.

Today, the Midlands boasts multiple taco trucks, bakeries, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, tortillerias, bars, tiendas and butcher shops catering to Mexicans and the wider Hispanic immigrant community.

But over the last year or so, things have changed again. Many of those once-packed taquerias seem emptier — though there’s no way to isolate such changes from the economic downturn’s effect on the wider restaurant business.

It was also a restaurant that let the new governor make her first big immigration-related announcement since taking office in January.

On April 28, Monterrey Mexican Restaurant on Killian Road had its business license temporarily yanked by the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation after failing repeated inspections to make sure the restaurant was checking the immigration status of new hires.

Gov. Nikki Haley announced the shutdown in a politically charged news release.

“At a time when President Obama has allowed ICE [Immigrations and Custom Enforcement] to abandon worksite enforcement and there are millions of illegal immigrants in the workforce, South Carolina is identifying the problem and addressing it,” Haley said.

Under Obama, ICE is indeed doing fewer immigration raids, but it’s increased its I-9 audits of businesses — targeting businesses more than individuals. Deportations have also increased under Obama, according to numbers released by the Department of Homeland Security.

Also, while there are indeed “millions of illegal immigrants” in the U.S. workforce — 11.2 million, to be exact — very few of them are in South Carolina.

The total number of undocumented immigrants here is closer to 55,000, according to the Pew report. They make up 2.1 percent of the labor force and 1.2 percent of the state’s total population. Hispanics make up about 5 percent of the state’s population. The large majority of them are citizens, legal residents or legal temporary workers.

Pinning Down the Numbers

Undocumented immigrants are a tough population to count. The Pew report reaches its conclusions mostly by working backward from census data, subtracting estimates of the legal immigrant population from the total foreign-born total population in the state.

But there’s other evidence as well. Elaine Lacy, a USC-Aiken professor and immigration expert, has been working on a follow-up to her own 2007 study of Mexican-born immigrants in South Carolina, conducting interviews with both documented and undocumented immigrants.

As of March, Lacy didn’t have the final numbers for her updated report yet, but she considers the Pew report credible and says her research shows decreases, too.

In her interviews, she asks why people are leaving: “Has either the state immigration law or the economy affected you in any way?” People mostly say yes.

“We ask, Do they know a lot of people who have left? Virtually everybody says yes,” Lacy says.

They ask about deportations, too: Do they personally know people who’ve been deported? Again, almost all of them say yes.

The rest of the country saw a slight drop in undocumented immigrants over the last three years, but much less steep than South Carolina’s.

And that bolsters something else Lacy and others are seeing: Undocumented workers who leave South Carolina aren’t necessarily returning to their home countries. They’re going to other states.

Why Leave South Carolina?

It’s a combination of factors, experts say, starting with the economy.

Undocumented immigrants work in many of the fields hardest hit by the recession and its aftermath — especially construction.

A 2005 Moore School of Business study of Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented, showed workers clustered in certain sectors: About one third, 34 percent, of the Mexican immigrants surveyed worked in construction. Other major industries included trade with 12.7 percent; restaurants with 9.7 percent; landscaping with 6.7 percent; and manufacturing with 5.4 percent.

In the Midlands, poultry processing and agriculture were also among the big-ticket industries.

South Carolina’s unemployment rate currently stands at 9.9 percent, the first time it’s been below 10 percent in some time. That means the state is creating jobs. But those jobs aren’t in construction. Construction jobs were down 3.9 percent in February compared with last year, and that’s following plunges in previous years, too.

South Carolina’s housing market is far from the worst in the country; in fact, because it never saw the crazy mid-bubble highs of states like Nevada and Florida, it didn’t plunge to such terrible lows as those places, either. But it slumped, and it hasn’t recovered.

Still, other states have bad economic outlooks, too. But undocumented workers are still going to those other states.

Another reason is South Carolina’s strict 2008 immigration law. The governor is right that South Carolina has seriously cracked down on undocumented immigrants in the state’s workforce.

In 2008, state lawmakers passed the South Carolina Illegal Immigration Reform Act.

Among other things, it requires businesses to check the immigration status of new hires within five days. To comply, businesses can either enroll in the federal E-Verify program, or they can check themselves by inspecting workers’ state-issued IDs.

Since the law took effect, the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation has cited 500 businesses across the state for failing to verify immigration status.

The names of those businesses are posted on the department’s website indefinitely.

Most of those are one-time citations. But a few — like the Monterrey Mexican Restaurant — are more serious, forcing the business to close and pay big fines.

In an Arizona Republic story late last year contrasting Arizona’s and South Carolina’s approaches to immigration reform, LLR spokesman Jim Knight touted the bad publicity as an effective deterrent for other businesses, saying the program was working as intended. The Republic appeared to agree, writing, “When it comes to cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, Arizona may be getting the headlines, but South Carolina seems to be getting results.”

Another deterrent is the cost of crossing the border: It’s now more expensive to get here. It used to cost $1,500 to cross illegally from Mexico to South Carolina, says one man who’s done it several times. Now it costs closer to $4,000.

Lacy confirms those numbers, saying the coyotes — people who illegally transport immigrants from their home country to the U.S. — are charging much more than they used to. She’s heard a price as high a $5,000. It’s mostly because of tougher border enforcement.

Because many immigrants go back to their home countries at least once each year, sometimes for the season, they need to know they’ll make enough money while they’re here to justify the coyotes’ fees.

Enforcement, Deportation and Fear

A final and trickier factor to measure is the role of fear in people leaving the state.

It’s not just that it’s harder to find a job because of state laws and a bad economy. It’s that there’s a growing sense in the immigrant community that South Carolina is a bad place to be.

Lexington County and a few coastal counties recently partnered with ICE on a program called 287(g), which allows local law enforcement to investigate the immigration status of people they arrest and turn them over for deportation if they’re here illegally.

One undocumented worker interviewed for this story says he feels the environment is more hostile recently in Lexington County, and other immigrants tell him they’ve had more contact with law enforcement there.

Others suggest the push for an Arizona-style law here is also causing fear — even among legal immigrants, who don’t want to be hassled.

Meanwhile, resentment toward immigrants continues to grow.

In 2008, Lacy wrote that after initially welcoming immigrants during the 1990s,
Southerners have begun to resent them in more recent years — and their policies show that.

“Some lawmakers in the region have made it very clear that their aim is to drive unauthorized immigrants from their areas,” Lacy wrote.

Asked today if she thinks that push has been successful, Lacy says yes.

But Ivan Segura, a workforce development consultant and member of the South Carolina Hispanic Leadership Council, cautions against putting too much emphasis on the role of tough policies and an atmosphere of fear.

“It’s not new, this discrimination and racism toward this community,” he says. “I think the decision to move is based mostly on an economic situation [rather] than fear.”

“They are coming here looking for an economic opportunity that was not provided [at home],” Segura says. “You are forgetting that the harder you make it for them, they’re going to stick around, and they’re going to try to find some other opportunities.”

“We don’t want to propagate this idea that if we make it hard for them to stay, they’ll pack up and leave,” he says.

Two decades of stricter border enforcement hasn’t affected the recent rate of immigration in the U.S., according to a 2010 Washington Post story. The same story cited evidence that stricter border enforcement makes seasonal immigrants more likely to stay in the U.S., fearing they won’t be able to get back home. Economics, it concluded, is the only factor that really matters to immigration.

Fewer Immigrants = More Jobs?

Farming, construction, food processing and the hospitality industry aren’t like, say, call centers or textile manufacturing: They can’t pack up and move overseas.

And one way they compete here at home is through cheap labor. Representatives of those industries insist they need immigrants — and policies that let those immigrants come here and work.

Asked whether the hospitality industry relies on immigrants, either undocumented or documented, Tom Sponseller, who heads the South Carolina Hospitality Association, is emphatic.

“We need employees, all right?” he says. Some coastal and resort areas without a large residential population are busing workers in from as far away as Sumter, he says. The industry brings in people on temporary work visas from abroad — European countries and places across the globe, not just Latin American — to fill vacant positions.

“It doesn’t matter what the economy is like,” Sponseller says. “Some people just aren’t willing to take entry-level jobs.”

Here in South Carolina, immigrants make far less than other South Carolina workers. A 2005 Moore School of Business study found the average annual wages of a Mexican immigrant in South Carolina to be $20,918, while the average salary of all South Carolina workers was $31,940.

But the big question remains: Do undocumented immigrants steal American jobs?

For the most part, no, the evidence suggests. A survey of economists across the political spectrum by found broad support for the view that immigrants actually grow the economy, rather than displacing American workers; and that the presence of immigrant workers boosts overall American wages, especially for high-skilled workers. Economists say immigration helps keep prices down and boosts overall output.

However, competition from immigrant workers does pull down the salaries of the very lowest paid native-born workers: high-school dropouts. So while immigrants have a net benefit to the U.S. economy, they can hurt some people’s job prospects.

A New Immigration Law — and Beyond

Within weeks, South Carolina lawmakers are likely to pass a new bill modeled on SB1070, Arizona’s 2010 law that allows law enforcement to ask about the immigration status of anyone they detain, and requires immigrants to carry documentation at all times. The federal government has ordered Arizona not to enforce some provisions of the law.

Two weeks ago, Georgia passed a similar immigration bill, and other states — Utah, Indiana — have them in the works.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, who introduced the South Carolina bill, told the Greenville News in February, “To protect the folks here in our state, I think we need to do all we can do to have the smallest illegal immigrant population in the country.”

Cops aren’t allowed to stop somebody just because they look Hispanic or foreign, according to the law. But Tom Turnipseed, an attorney and veteran social activist, doesn’t think that’s how it’ll work in practice.

“Of course, black people know this, that they kind of make up a reason to stop you,” Turnipseed says.

Three years ago, representatives from the agricultural, hospitality and other sectors lobbied against South Carolina’s immigration law.

This time around, things are different.

“They’re not out in the open like they were with 2008 bill,” says Turnipseed. This year, he says, they’re opposed, but “they probably wouldn’t tell you that.”

Privately, a lobbyist for one of the affected industries confirms that: This time around, there’s so much political momentum behind the immigration bill, they don’t see much point in sticking their necks out by opposing it.

So, the bill’s passage seems likely. And if fear is indeed a factor in why people leave South Carolina, it seems likely they’ll continue to leave under the new law.

Does that mean a return to a black-and-white South Carolina? A Decker Boulevard free of taquerias?

No, says Lacy. The culture of South Carolina is changed forever, because immigrants have had children.

“Every day I hear about some family that the parents came over 10, 12, 15 years ago; the kids are in school, and they’re just trying to lay low because they want their kids to grow up here.”

“We have a large legal Latino population. Extremely diverse. From many different parts of Latin America. And the largest group are children,” she says.

“They’re part of this culture, and I think they’re going to enrich this culture.”

In fact, the next time I went to lunch at La Estrella No. 2, there were plenty of customers.

And the tacos de chorizo were fantastic.

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