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Prince William Crackdown Worries Some Merchants

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2007

Some Prince William businesses fear that the county's recent move to cut public services to illegal immigrants could hurt their operations should the Hispanic community, one of the fastest-growing in the region, decide it is no longer welcome.

Most shopkeepers said it was too early to tell what effect, if any, debate over the new restrictions will have on their operations, though some see troubling signs.

Money wire transfers at Olazabal Travel's offices in Manassas and Woodbridge have dropped 80 percent, to about two per week, since July. The lunch crowd at El Pulgarcito, a Salvadoran restaurant in Woodbridge, has declined by about one-third over the same period. Todos Market is opening a new store in Dumfries but won't focus exclusively on Hispanics because, its owner said, it is no longer able to count on their numbers to grow.

"People are just scared and don't know what the resolution will mean for them, so they are leaving or going out as little as possible," said Jose Merino, the owner of two El Pulgarcito restaurants in Woodbridge.

Last week, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a measure that would allow police to check the immigration status of anyone who breaks the law. It also agreed to cut certain services to illegal immigrants.

Corey Stewart, chairman of the board of supervisors, has said that he doesn't believe businesses will be hurt by the resolution and, furthermore, that local firms shouldn't be employing or serving illegal immigrants in the first place.

Many managers said they had seen little change in business since the debate over the measure began in 2006.

Sales at Costco in the Potomac Mills mall in Woodbridge have been steady since the store opened in May. Richard Hendershot, an accountant and chairman of the Prince William County Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce, said his 1,200 members haven't complained of declining sales in recent months.

The chamber doesn't have an official position on the county's resolution, saying only that all of its members must "comply with the law." It has asked local and state officials to help businesses improve ways of verifying the legal status of their employees.

"We felt that this was not an issue that was related to our mission as a chamber," Hendershot said.

Other business owners, particularly those who cater to Hispanics, said the legislation has affected them. Ethnic grocer Global Food opened stores in Woodbridge and Manassas five years ago because of the county's booming demographic mix. Its owners said they were particularly attracted to the fast-growing Hispanic community, which makes up about 20 percent of the county's population, according to the most recent census. When some Hispanic groups organized boycotts to protest the county's action, the Asian-owned grocer said it saw sales decline, underscoring its reliance on the Hispanic community, which makes up about one-quarter of its customer base.

"We're worried about the future. It's very difficult to see what things will look like after this week," James Kim, co-owner of Global Food, said Thursday.

The county's new measures have led many legal and illegal immigrants to question their quality of life in the county, said Italo Olazabal, co-owner of Olazabal Travel.

Fewer customers are coming to his Woodbridge and Manassas offices. (He also operates an office in Falls Church, where business has not declined.) Since July, sales have been down about 30 percent and Olazabal has reduced staff to one from four or five employees in each of his Prince William offices. He said some customers have moved to North Carolina or Fairfax County. In the past month, 10 customers bought one-way tickets to their home countries, which Olazabal said was unheard of before the anti-illegal-immigrant measures were proposed.

"We have to figure out a Plan B, whether we should just work on our office in [Falls Church] and whether we can even keep Manassas and Woodbridge open," he said.

With sales at Todos Market in Woodbridge dropping about 10 percent in the last few months, owner Carlos Castro, a vocal critic of the county's anti-illegal-immigrant resolution, said he had been forced to take a new approach to his business.

He's opening a 15,000-square-foot store in Dumfries, in a space formerly occupied by Word of Faith Christian Fellowship church, and stocking items that do not target Hispanic customers. He's optimistic he can reorient his store to appeal to a wider group of customers.

"If we can pull this off, we can open anywhere," he said.

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