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In N.Va., a Latino Community Unravels
Job Losses and Pr. William Law Hit Illegal Immigrants and Others

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

A vibrant Latino subculture built in Prince William County over more than a decade is starting to come undone in a matter of months.

With Latinos fleeing the combined effects of the construction downturn, the mortgage crisis and new local laws aimed at catching illegal immigrants, Latino shops are on the brink of bankruptcy, church groups are hemorrhaging members, neighborhoods are dotted with for-sale signs, and once-busy strip malls have been transformed into ghost towns.

County officials who have campaigned for months to drive out illegal immigrants say they would be unhappy to see businesses suffer or legal immigrants forced out in the process.

"But I believe the benefits will far outweigh the drawbacks," said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Board of County Supervisors and a leading advocate of the new policy allowing police to check the immigration status of people stopped for other violations. "And there will continue to be . . . a thriving Latino community in the county into the future."

At least for the moment, however, to travel through Prince William's Latino enclaves is to witness scene after scene of a community's transformation.

* * *

It was just past noon, a time when dozens of Latino construction workers used to troop into Doris Sorto's Dale City restaurant.

Yet on this recent weekday, the only occupied table was the one where Sorto, 54, sat with the restaurant's disc jockey, sipping chicken soup as she worked up the nerve to tell him she would need to let him go. She had already laid off one cook and three waitresses.

A U.S. citizen, Sorto moved to Prince William from El Salvador in 1986, opening a mini-mart in 2001 when a construction boom and cheap housing were luring Latinos to the county. As their share of the population in Prince William grew from 4 percent to nearly 20 percent, so did Sorto's ambitions.

In 2006, she opened the restaurant, naming it El Rinconcito Latino, or Little Latino Corner. By last March, Sorto was doing so well she decided to sign a 10-year, $18,000-a-month lease on a cavernous mall space where she hoped to open a Latin American-themed supermarket.

But since October, she said, business at the restaurant has dropped by 60 percent. Last month, after Sorto had spent more than $100,000 on cabinets for the new market, her banker informed her that he could no longer approve the $950,000 loan they had been finalizing.

"If things keep going this way, I don't know how I'm going to survive," said Sorto, massaging a sore arm her doctor blames on stress.

* * *

The choir at Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church in Woodbridge broke into a final, spirited chorus signaling the conclusion of the Easter Sunday Spanish Mass. A 28-year-old Salvadoran woman named Nury Fuentes pulled a set of rosary beads from her purse and waved them at a woman a few pews back.

"To work!" Fuentes whispered with a grin.

As coordinator of the church's Spanish charismatic prayer group, Fuentes was in charge of rounding up members for a post-Mass recitation of the novena for divine mercy, a devotion modeled on the nine days of prayers said by the Apostles after Jesus's ascension to heaven.

Until recently, Fuentes said, she could have counted on nearly 40 people to join her at the front of the church. Members of the group call each other "brother" and "sister" and rarely miss a meeting.

But since October, more than two dozen have moved away.

Now only four women and seven men trickled forward.

As Fuentes watched them take their places beside her, she said afterward, she thought sadly of those not there: Brother William, the young Salvadoran carpet layer with a knack for guitar playing, who used to keep them all in tune; Sister Marta, the motherly Mexican who still had time to pray over everyone else's problems after she lost her job as a house cleaner.

"You feel their absence like a deep pain because we are like a family," she said. "Each one has their role."

* * *

The sun gleamed over Manassas out of a cloudless sky. A Guatemalan woman named Silda pulled a curtain across her living room window to block the glare on the television. Her 3-year-old daughter, Cynthia, careened past on a scooter, crashing into the couch.

Normally, Silda would have spent a day like this walking around the mall, or chatting on the stoop with her Salvadoran friend next door while Cynthia played with the Mexican children across the street.

But those neighbors are gone now, their homes vacant like so many others in the subdivision. And Silda, who is in the United States illegally, is too nervous to venture out for casual strolls.

"What if a policeman were to stop me and ask for identification?" said Silda, who asked that her surname not be published.

She checked the time on her TV screen: 3:30 p.m. -- the hour Silda used to start preparing dinner for her husband, his two brothers and two cousins, all likely to be hungry after a day erecting frames for houses. But that was before such work dried up in Prince William. Two weeks ago, all five men moved to take jobs in Pennsylvania.

Silda said her husband plans to send for her and the children as soon as he can find a suitable home, even though it will probably mean abandoning their current house to the bank. "There's no way we can sell it," she said.

She checked the TV clock again. Time to walk to the bus stop, where her 5-year-old son, Denilson, would be dropped off from kindergarten. Silda and Cynthia stepped into the eerie quiet of the street. They walked past several small houses with "For Sale" signs in front. In the driveway of another, a pickup truck was piled with chairs and a grill.

"Looks like they'll be the next to go," Silda murmured.

A police car drove by, and Silda quickly pulled Cynthia toward her body.

At last, the bus arrived. When school started last fall, she said, a dozen Latino kids used to get off. On this afternoon, Denilson was the only one. Silda let him and Cynthia race back to the house. The more energy they expended, the less they would complain about spending the rest of the day inside.

Once back in the living room, Silda handed her son the remote.

"Here," she said. "Why don't you watch some cartoons?"

* * *

The bell by the door to the 99 Cent Plus store in Woodbridge jingled as a stocky Latino man walked in.

Safi Ullah, the Bangladesh-born owner, perked up at the rare sight of a shopper.

"┬┐Hola, amigo!" he said encouragingly.

The man was a longtime customer who normally was accompanied by his wife and three children. This time, only his eldest daughter was with him.

"Excuse me," the girl asked Ullah in English. "Where is the candles?"

"You mean like birthday candles?"

"No. Candles for the light," she said.

Ullah pointed to a shelf, and the man returned with a box of 12 tapered candles and a plastic lighter.

The man, whose name is Mauricio and who is Salvadoran, zipped his jacket against the wind whipping across the dark, vacant parking lot as he walked out of the store toward a borrowed car.

That morning, his electricity had been cut off. The next day, he and 11-year-old Erica would be moving into the basement of a neighbor's house. On this night, they would make do with candles.

It was the latest blow in a year of calamities: In April, the interest rate on Mauricio's ill-advised mortgage suddenly spiked, more than doubling his monthly payments. In May, he lost his job as a house painter. In June, he had to sell his van. In July, his third child was born, and with no insurance, he started skipping mortgage payments to cover the hospital bills. In October, the bank began foreclosure proceedings. In November, he sent his wife and two U.S.-born children to El Salvador.

December brought the worst setback yet: Mauricio bounced a $460 check he had sent the Department of Homeland Security to renew his temporary legal status, transforming him from legal to illegal immigrant.

In January, he received notice to vacate his house. Two weeks ago, the water was cut off. A week ago, his Virginia driver's license expired, and without legal status, he can no longer renew it.

Mauricio and Erica turned onto a side street pocked with darkened, empty houses and pulled up to a brick house with mustard shutters. A plastic barrel stood under the gutter spout. Mauricio had been using it to collect rainwater to heat so Erica could take baths.

Inside, it was cold and pitch black. Mauricio lit a candle and handed it to Erica. She dripped the wax onto the kitchen table to make a candle holder.

Next, they went into Erica's bedroom. She hugged a stuffed dog to her chest as she watched her father stand a candle on her dresser.

Finally, they walked into Mauricio's bedroom. As he lit his candle, it illuminated a large, framed photograph of him and his wife embracing the children. Mauricio stood for a moment, looking up at their grinning faces, before walking out of the room.

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