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A Hispanic Population in Decline

At a meeting last year, immigrants ask questions about the crackdown. Since then, the Latino population has declined and foreclosures are up.
At a meeting last year, immigrants ask questions about the crackdown. Since then, the Latino population has declined and foreclosures are up. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
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By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008

The family that planted corn in the front yard of their $500,000 home is gone from Carrie Oliver's street. So are the neighbors who drilled holes into the trees to string up a hammock.

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Oliver's list goes on: The loud music. The beer bottles. The littered diapers. All gone. When she and her husband, Ron, went for walks in their Manassas area neighborhood, she would take a trash bag and he would carry a handgun. No more. "So much has changed," she said in a gush of relief, standing with her husband on a warm summer evening recently outside a Costco store.

A short distance away, across the river of retail commerce that is Sudley Road, Norman Gonzalez spoke of change not as renewal, but as a kind of collapse.

Business at his restaurant, Cuna del Sol, has declined 50 percent. Worse still, his extended family's slow, steady relocation from the Guatemalan town of Jutiapa to the bustling Prince William suburbs has imploded. "A year ago, I had the biggest family in all of Manassas, maybe 100 relatives," he said.

Now, Gonzalez, a legal U.S. resident, has his own list: Langley Park, Chantilly, Fairfax City. That is where his brothers have scattered, and they will not visit him. "There's too much fear here," Gonzalez said.

Since the day one year ago when Prince William County supervisors launched their crackdown on illegal immigration, the gulf between the Olivers' relief and Gonzalez's dejection has narrowed little, and possibly widened.

At least there is one thing partisans on both sides agree on: Hispanic immigrants are leaving Prince William. Whether their departure has improved the county's quality of life, or pushed its already strained economy further downward, is the new topic of contention driven largely by views of whether the presence of immigrants was a good thing in the first place.

Anecdotes of the trend outstrip hard statistical evidence, yet there are clear signs that the county's Latino population has reversed its pace of rapid growth. County officials said there are 4,000 to 7,000 vacant homes in the county. Trustee notices fill the classified section of area newspapers, chronicling the steady, staggering forfeiture of properties by homeowners with Hispanic surnames such as Mendez, Lozano, Medina and Rodriguez.

Last month, there were 776 foreclosure recordings in the Prince William County, Manassas, Manassas Park area, court records show, up from 244 in June 2007 and 19 in June 2006.

Would those homeowners have been foreclosed upon anyway, for economic reasons having nothing to do with the county's illegal immigration policies? That, too, is disputed.

"You can't attribute all of what might be negative about the economy in Prince William County to the crackdown," said economist Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis. "But it certainly hasn't helped. Neighborhoods that have been weakened because of migration of the Hispanic community out of the county have economic consequences that show up as decreases in retail spending, rental income and potential decreases in the valuation of some housing."

That decrease -- home prices in some areas have fallen by half -- is well worth the improvement in quality of life, according to the most ardent supporters of the county's get-tough approach.


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