By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007
Supporters of the anti-illegal immigration measure adopted in Prince William County last week have argued that its most important purpose is to send a powerful signal to the county's mostly Latino illegal immigrants that they are no longer welcome.
It appears the message has already been received: Terrified that new policies will lead to mass deportations, illegal immigrants and the many legal immigrant relatives and friends who live with them have been moving out of Prince William ever since July, when county supervisors first approved the plan's outline.
The size of the migration is difficult to measure, particularly during a year when slumping housing prices and skyrocketing foreclosures have led many residents to move for purely economic reasons.
Still, signs of the growing climate of fear are everywhere.
At the Freetown Market, a convenience store in a heavily Latino section of Woodbridge that offers U-Haul trucks for hire, one-way rentals have jumped from between 10 and 20 a month just before July to about 40 a month today.
In the same strip mall, at a money-transfer store where the customer line to pay utility bills once snaked out the door, business has slowed so dramatically the past three months that one clerk has been let go and the remaining one spends most of her time on the computer, e-mailing gloomy updates to relatives back home in Guatemala.
A few doors down, staff workers at the IMA English language academy will soon be taking the American flag decorations off the walls and moving to a smaller space, because the number of students has plummeted from 350 to about 60 since July.
"There is a mass panic," said the academy's owner, Roberto Catacora. "Those who haven't already moved away don't dare step outside their houses."
Although one of the new measures directs county police to check the immigration status of only criminal suspects, many immigrants think that all Latinos will be subject to random sweeps, Catacora added.
The effect on his once-bustling academy was palpable on a recent weeknight, when all but one of the six classrooms were deserted.
Among the absent students was Jose Luis Pubeac, 42, a day laborer who sneaked into the country 18 months ago. He was busy preparing for his flight back to El Salvador on Saturday.
"I was already thinking of going home, because I was having such a hard time finding work," said Pubeac, speaking on his cellphone as he raced around picking up presents for his five children back home. "But this law convinced me it was time. [They] hate us so much here."
Most departing immigrants, however, appear to be moving closer afield, choosing states such as North Carolina or neighboring counties such as Prince George's or Arlington that they perceive as less hostile.
In August, Walter Ramirez settled on Alexandria.
A 29-year-old construction worker, Ramirez was not personally at risk from Prince William's crackdown because he has a temporary permit granted to many Salvadorans when an earthquake devastated their country in 2001.
But his roommates were a different story. And after the July resolution was adopted, they were overcome with stifling paranoia.
"I used to walk over to the supermarket every day to pick up food or a phone card or just to hang out," recalled one roommate, a 22-year-old from Honduras who sneaked into the United States three years ago. "But suddenly it seemed like there were so many police officers there, so I limited myself to once a week. It was so stressful, because you feel totally locked up, like you're a prisoner in your own home," he added, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Ramirez nodded his head sympathetically. The two were sitting on a large tan couch that took up almost the entire living room of their new home, a walled-off section of a ramshackle colonial house on a leafy cul-de-sac.
The cramped quarters are a step down from the well-kept apartment they rented in Woodbridge, where each man paid $275 a month for his own room and had access to the nicely landscaped complex's swimming pool. In Alexandria, they pay $400 each for shared rooms, make do with a hot plate in place of a stove and are no longer walking distance from friends and shops.
"It's a more isolated life here, and that's a sacrifice. But I had no choice," Ramirez said. "My buddies are like my family. I can't live in a place where they are going to be persecuted."
Several real estate agents who serve Latino immigrants predicted that more people will reach the same conclusion as Ramirez now that the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has given final approval to the anti-illegal immigration measure.
"This is not something that only affects the undocumented," agent Rosie Vilchez said. "Because in the same family, it's so common to have some people who are citizens, some people who are residents and some who are undocumented. And those with papers are going to do whatever is necessary to protect those without."
Within hours of the board's vote, Salvadoran-born Aracely Diaz instructed her real estate agent to put her townhouse on the market.
Diaz, a supermarket checkout clerk, was one of nearly 400 people who waited for hours to comment on the bill during the marathon pre-vote session that stretched into Wednesday's wee hours.
"Even after they passed that July resolution, I had hope that [the supervisors] would change their minds," said Diaz, 37, who has legal status but worries about relatives who do not.
Now, she noted bitterly, "I'll be selling at a loss. But I don't care. I no longer have any affection for this place that treats us this way. I just want to get out."
Jose Ventura, a Salvadoran mason renting an apartment in Manassas, cites similar reasons for his decision to move not just his residence but also his business to Maryland.
Ventura, 38, who came to the United States seven years ago and then received the temporary protected status because of the earthquake in his homeland, smiled ruefully as he recalled the sense of possibility that suffused Prince William back then. "Oh, it was so great. There was so much work," he said.
He took two jobs to save enough to start a masonry company, then built it into a 35-person operation.
But a slowdown in the construction industry has forced Ventura to cut his workforce to 15 people. Meanwhile, his plan to buy a new house and offset some of the mortgage by renting some of the rooms backfired after county residents called for a crackdown on overcrowding. A few days ago, the bank foreclosed on the property, wiping out all $80,000 of his savings and leaving him $20,000 in debt.
The supervisors' unanimous approval of the anti-illegal immigration resolution struck Ventura as the last straw.
"I feel like when this county was growing, when they needed us, they welcomed us Latinos with open arms," he said. "But now that the county is all grown up and times are hard, it's totally turned its back on us. They are so ungrateful."