President Trump's promised clampdown on illegal immigration is having a distinct impact on the Washington region's immigrant-rich suburbs, according to residents, advocates, workers and business owners. Fewer people are venturing out into once-lively shops and commercial strips, and the economies of those communities are suffering as a result.
“It’s too hard, and people are too scared,” said Julio Umanzor, a carpenter and legal permanent resident from Mexico who comes to the shopping center off New Hampshire Avenue to find workers to put up drywall, paint or run wires for a day’s wages.
Saqib Choubhry, part of a large Pakistani family that owns the Fair Price International Supermarkets in Northern Virginia, said not as many customers are coming in, and those who do are buying less.
“We had a plan to open another location, but we postponed it,” Choubhry said last week, on a day when Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) visited the store in Alexandria to demonstrate his support for immigrants. “It’s very slow — just look around.”
A trickle of customers approached the halal meat counters, but the grocery aisles, where large jugs of sesame paste, mango juice containers and bags of basmati rice were neatly stacked, stayed nearly empty.
The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has rounded up hundreds of undocumented residents across the country in recent weeks, including some outside a homeless shelter in Northern Virginia and near a Walgreens in Baltimore.
Trump's executive orders — an expansion of who can be targeted beyond known criminals, as well as the travel ban that was blocked in federal court — have sparked what appears to be a new assertiveness in enforcement, and a rising wave of worry among immigrants in the Washington area and across the country.
“It’s fear, fear, fear. That’s the language we are speaking,” said Theodore Ngatchou, a community activist within Washington’s French-speaking African community. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Even those with papers, like me, are scared.”
But there is also an undercurrent of fatalism about a situation that immigrants know they cannot fully control.
Edwin, an Guatemalan day laborer who has been in the country for 20 years and did not want his last name used, said he will keep looking for jobs, guided by a verse from the Bible’s Book of Daniel and a belief that the U.S. economy relies on people like himself.
“This country needs us, the workers. But whatever happens, I trust in God’s will,” he said Friday outside the shopping center in Hyattsville. “God deposes kings and raises up kings. The same goes for presidents.”
Elected leaders across many parts of the region have vowed to support undocumented residents, issuing a patchwork of statements denouncing ICE actions. Governments in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have reaffirmed their refusal to comply with certain federal immigration requests, and school systems have dispatched messages to remind parents that they should continue to send their children to class.
Absenteeism has, so far, not been widespread, area school systems said. But there are isolated reports of adults and children staying home, including in Baltimore, where immigrants are skipping their English-as-second-language classes at Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Center.
Meanwhile, parents are requesting legal consultations and applying for passports for their children in numbers organizers haven’t seen before.
“We are trying to arm people with facts,” said Valerie Twanmoh, director of the Esperanza Center. “We try to tell them to continue with their daily routines.”
About half as many people as usual came last week to the Legal Aid Justice Center’s weekly food distribution in Fairfax County’s Culmore neighborhood, advocates there said.
Lindolfo Carballo, who oversees CASA’s immigrant welcome centers, said asylum seekers from Ghana, Togo and Cameroon have stopped coming to CASA-run day labor centers, instead calling in to ask whether there is any work.
"Now, there is priority for everyone, whether you're guilty of a civil offense or are a hardened criminal," said Del. Carlo Sanchez (D-Prince George's), who has signed on as co-sponsor of a state bill to limit cooperation with federal immigration agents. "People can no longer afford to believe that if they stay clean, they will be okay."
The streets were nearly empty at lunchtime Friday near Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring, where Sonia Castellon has parked her pupusa truck for several months.
“There’s nobody,” she said. Some people simply want to stay out of public view. Others are trying to save money, fearing that tougher times could lie ahead.
At a salon off University Boulevard in Langley Park, stylist Ana Pulgarin cut one client's hair and talked about others who have been calling to cancel appointments because they fear being detained. "Business is down by 60 percent," said Pulgarin, 48. "Meanwhile, there is rent to pay."
Ronald Torres, owner of the nearby mobile phone retailer Viva Wireless, and Francisco Escobar, who owns a clothing store called Ropa Colombiana, said sales have plummeted in their shops as well.
Some customers have told Torres that they are packing their belongings and planning to leave the United States on their own, before they are forced to do so. Their energy and industriousness, he added, will go with them.
“I don’t think Trump sees the bigger picture,” said Torres, who opened his store four years ago, when business was abundant. “But we all see what is happening. I don’t know what we are going to do.”