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Immigrant Businesses Worry About Trump's Harder Line, And Their Bottom Lines

Business leaders in the region's immigrant communities say President Trump's tougher line on immigration is having a chilling effect on businesses and the broader economy. Fear and uncertainty are keeping some shoppers home and threatening to dampen investment in immigrant businesses - one of the fastest growing parts of the economy.

It's a weekday afternoon and a price scanner is beeping as a lone shopper checks out at the Compare Foods on North Tryon Street in Charlotte. The registers here are usually pretty busy on weekdays. But ever since President Donald Trump ordered tighter enforcement of immigration laws in January, it's been quieter, says Omar Jorge, the company's CEO.  

“So you have people who are otherwise law abiding, who are afraid to leave their house, who are only going out for the bare necessities,” Jorge says. “How that's affected us, is our sales on weekdays are down drastically because people are just not going out to shop.”

Down about 4 percent, to be exact, which Jorge says is “pretty tough” for a retail business.

You can see the change in the parking lot, says Tonya Crosby. She's a regular at the store on North Tryon Street.  

“Usually you can't even get any parking out here and the store's so crowded you're bumper-to-bumper in the store, with your carts. It hasn't been like that in the past few months,” Crosby says. 

Other businesses also are seeing a slowdown. And for some, the immigration crackdown threatens their survival. Last week, an unauthorized immigrant who owns a Charlotte concrete company lost his battle to avoid deportation. He was arrested and now faces deportation - leaving his company in limbo.

There's no broad survey of how the immigration crackdown is affecting the economy. Most of the information is anecdotal. And there are plenty of anecdotes.

Over at Las Delicias Bakery on Central Avenue, you can hear the thump thump thump of a large mixer as a worker makes bread dough. The bakery is a favorite with Latinos and others in the neighborhood, and also supplies breads and cakes to dozens of stores. Owner Manolo Betancur says he used to sell 40 cakes on a weekend. Recently, it's been more like 10.  

“My business (is) not going well,” Betancur says. “Sales keep going down, but worse than that is the fear, the fear of my employees, the fear of losing my employees, the fear of losing my customers, the fear of our kids losing their parents, and the economy is getting very affected."

One way of measuring the impact is to look at where immigrants fit into the overall economy. About 8 percent of North Carolina's population is foreign born, according to the Migration Policy Institute. (It's a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., that researches immigration issues.)  Many own their own businesses - an easy way to generate income when you can't get hired because of your background.

The U.S. Census Bureau's latest five-year economic census - as of 2012 - found more than 8,000 Latino owned businesses in Mecklenburg County, with sales of more than a billion dollars. (The county has more than 100,000 businesses total.)  And the number of Latino businesses is growing faster than businesses in the county overall.

About 338,000 unauthorized immigrants live in North Carolina. If they’re spending less out of fear of immigration authorities, that hurts businesses.

And Manolo Betancur says when immigrant businesses suffer, so does the broader economy. When sales are down, he buys less from big suppliers.

“It's the North Carolina economy, it's the USA economy, because we get our produce from a big company like Dawn Foods, U.S. Foods, Chef'Store. They're getting hit,” he says.

Latino business leaders say the current anti-immigrant climate could have a chilly effect on business growth. Rocio Gonzalez leads Charlotte's Latin American Chamber of Commerce.

“You're not going to want to make any investments not knowing what is going to happen. We have a lot of businesses kind of holding on their investment decisions because they don't know if they're going to have enough clients or enough labor force,” she said.

All the focus on the economy and business bothers Amalia Deloney. She spoke at a forum on the economy and immigration policy this week at Johnson C. Smith University about the other kinds of impacts that immigrants have – including building community.

“And the way you contribute to creating community is in multiple ways that involve language and culture, and camaraderie and what it means to be a good neighbor. And I think that it’s important for us to highlight those pieces,” Deloney says.

She says it’s really a conversation about who deserves full membership in U.S. society.  

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.