ALBERTVILLE, Alabama -- La Tienda del Sol, a neighborhood market, occupies almost the entire corner of Main Avenue in downtown Albertville. The national flags of Guatemala and Mexico hang in the window, inviting customers to enter. Yet the store is completely empty, and its owner, a Dominican who opened the store 15 years ago, is considering a move out of state.
"The damage is already done," says Jose Contreras, 41, over a counter of freshly baked Mexican-style breads. "We're leaving. There’s nothing left for me here. I’ll have to leave my home, leave everything. There’s no way I’m going to work at a poultry processing plant."
The exodus of Latino immigrants who are choosing to leave the state with their families for fear of Alabama’s HB56 law is not only being felt in the chicken processing plants that abound in this city, but in the pockets of small shopkeepers who have lost their base of consumers.
HB56, considered the toughest piece of anti-immigrant legislation in the nation, was upheld by Federal Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, last week. The law makes it a state crime to be without legal documents and requires schools to inquire about the immigration status of parents enrolling their children.
"I had (regular) customers who came throughout the day, on their lunch hour, and they don’t come now," laments Maria Gonzalez, a restaurant owner who requested not to be identified for fear of the police. "I'm a single mom. My family depends on me."
Gonzalez, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico, invested all her savings in a small restaurant that is now completely empty. Two pots filled with beef broth sitting in the kitchen will likely be discarded, said Gonzalez, who has already lost half of her income.
"In Mexico, they are killing people by kidnapping. I’m scared to go back," she laments.
These days, Gonzalez chooses to walk to her restaurant rather than drive, to avoid the checkpoints that police have set up across Albertville in an effort to fine unlicensed drivers.
According to James Smith, the deputy chief of police in Albertsville, the checkpoints are necessary to ensure public security and he acknowledges that this has resulted in the confiscation of unlicensed vehicles. With the passage of HB56, someone without identification now runs the risk of being arrested and questioned about their immigration status, he said.
Smith said his department of 42 officers hasn’t yet received any training, which he admitted puts his force between a rock and a hard place since HB 56 holds them accountable for implementing the new law.
“I’ve been robbed here at the restaurant and also once at my house, but police aren’t interested in investigating those [crimes],” Gonzalez says.
The same problems are being felt at another restaurant, not far from the one Gonzalez owns.
“What happens is, if we earn $70 or $80 a day, that’s not enough to pay [the bills]," says Pascual Pedro, a Guatemalan from Huehuetenango who owns Taqueria La Tienda and Maya. "We still need to pay for the utilities and the rent, but there’s no business."
Pedro, who owns another restaurant, says [the law] will eventually cause a chain reaction that will soon also affect food suppliers and makers of products that cater to business.
Not all small business owners who are suffering from the departure of immigrants are Latinos. John Henley has been selling fruit and vegetables since 1975 and in recent years immigrants working in chicken processing plants in Albertville have become his major customers.
“We miss them," says Henley, whose sales have suffered a 20 percent decline in recent days. "We also need someone to collect the produce. Here it’s full of lazy people who do not want to work and live on food stamps."
Henley, 85, believes that popular support for HB56 in Alabama has more to do with opposing a federal government identified with a black president, than it does with the issue of immigration itself.
"I think they don’t have the slightest idea what the reality is," Henley said of the elected officials.
"I don’t think we should ask everyone to leave," says Carolyn Pritchett, a 69-year-old retiree who was buying some fruits. Her eyes filled with tears as she said she planned to write to her state politicians, to slow the immigration bill.
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