RALEIGH — North Carolina's Hispanic population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, but the recession and stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws has made life here hard for many.
Hundreds of Hispanics are leaving the state each month, even as thousands of others work daily to deepen their roots, buying homes, starting families and building businesses.
Ten to 20 people a day from North Carolina board buses run by Tornado Bus Co. headed for Mexico, said Maria Velicquez, assistant manager for the company's Raleigh office. That's a big turnaround from when Tornado came to North Carolina during the economic boom 15 years ago, bringing busloads of immigrants into the state every day.
The only ones coming now, Velicquez said, are those with permits to work in the tobacco fields.
There's no way to know how many Hispanics have left since last April, when the U.S. Census Bureau found 800,120 Hispanic people in North Carolina, compared to 378,963 in 2000, a 111 percent increase. In 2000, Hispanics made up 4.7 percent of the state's population; in 2010, they were 8.4 percent.
Many of the ones who are leaving are in the country illegally, Velicquez said. Because of changes in the law, they can no longer get driver's licenses, which makes it nearly impossible to work. And they worry about getting caught, arrested and deported, earning criminal records that would make it even harder to ever get legal papers.
"If you're struggling, they're struggling twice as hard," said Leo Reich, Latino director for Neighbor to Neighbor ministries in Raleigh. "Economically, it hits them twice as hard. It was hard for them before, and now the jobs they were able to get are being taken by [Americans], who are now willing to work at those jobs when they weren't willing to before."
'There is no work'
Pedro Aguirre, who came to North Carolina in 2002, has watched the job market for Hispanic labor dry up.
"It's very difficult," Aguirre said. "People cannot find jobs. There is no work."
When he came to the United States, in 1988, Aguirre's plan was to work about five years, saving enough money to get established back home in Mexico. He took two full-time jobs in fast food in California, then hired on as a casino cook in Nevada for a higher wage. From there, he went to Seattle, where he worked in construction, specializing in drywall.
Along the way, he became a U.S. citizen, a husband, a father and, in his heart, an American.
By the time he moved to North Carolina to start Junior's Drywall, he was committed to staying. He has a brother, sister and cousins here. His parents come to visit every summer.
"There was much work here then," he said. There was a lot of building going on in the Triangle and across the state, and he landed one job after another, usually contracts for new school construction. His crew of 25 stayed busy.
Two years ago, when the recession hit, the contracts began to disappear. The jobs he did get, he had to bid so low he could barely cover his costs. He trimmed his work force to a half-dozen men. In the past six months, he has bid on 120 jobs and landed none.
Last year, Aguirre decided to try something else. He and his brother invested $200,000 - their life savings - into fixing up a long-vacant restaurant on New Bern Avenue and bringing Raleigh its first franchise of The Taco Maker.
That, too, is struggling. A small group of regulars, who come for freshly prepared, Tex-Mex-style fast food, is not enough to keep Aguirre from having to use savings to cover his monthly bills. If things don't improve, that money will run out in two or three months.
Already, many of Aguirre's Hispanic friends have left the area, some for other states where they hope to find work, or for their native countries.
"My friends, they call me, they want me to buy their tools, $700 worth of tools for a few hundred dollars so they can pay to go back to Mexico," he said.
What's being lost
While some might cheer the exodus, those who advocate for Hispanics say that as they leave, they take more with them than will fit in the luggage bin of a charter bus.
"They are a very enterprising group of people," said Pablo Escobar, a member of the board of El Pueblo in Raleigh, which advocates for Latinos in the state. "If you're traveling 6,000 miles from home, you've got to have some gumption. That first generation is extremely enterprising. We've seen it with every wave of immigrants that has come to this country.
"We could definitely use that energy here in North Carolina."
Researchers have said that Hispanics contribute billions of dollars a year to the state's economy through purchases, taxes and labor. But there are costs as well, for school districts struggling to pay for English-as-a-second-language classes, for example, and government agencies that pay for health care for illegal immigrants. A 2005 study by UNC-Chapel Hill found the state was spending $102 per Hispanic resident on health care, education and correctional services.
Those able to stay make long-term investments that demonstrate emotional and financial attachments to North Carolina.
The Latino Community Credit Union, with 54,000 members across the state, has for years loaned money to help Hispanics buy homes.
Alejandro Sanchez and his wife took out a credit union mortgage in July 2009 to buy a townhouse in Durham, a city they fell in love with after coming from Colombia to attend Duke University.
"That's a commitment," Sanchez said of the house purchase, and it reflects his appreciation of the region's arts and educational offerings, its natural resources and social ventures.
Sanchez has an MBA from Duke and now does marketing for the credit union.
This year, the credit union began offering individual retirement accounts to its members, in addition to the financial education training it provides to help members manage their money and make informed long-term investments.
Erika Bell, a credit union vice president, said the interest in those services "shows that people really want to integrate into our local communities and find success here."
Committed to staying
Aguirre still hopes to find success. Plan B, he said, is to stop spending time bidding on drywall jobs and suspend that business completely. He could let go of all but two of his employees at The Taco Maker, and bring in his three sons and the rest of his family to try and keep the restaurant, and the dream, alive.
"I will not go back to Mexico," he said. "I have to think about the boys. They're in school here. They have better opportunity here. They were born here. This is their country."
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