The Carolinas' Latino populations continue to rank among the country's fastest-growing, despite a slowing economy and a tougher crackdown on illegal immigrants.
New Census data show South Carolina's Latino population ranked first among states in per capita growth from 2006 to 2007. North Carolina was third, with Tennessee between them.
The Charlotte region continues to fuel the increase, with more than 16,000 new Latino residents arriving in the area.
The new arrivals come not only from Mexico, Central and South America, but also New York, New Jersey and California, where U.S. economic problems have taken a greater toll, immigrants and advocates say. Latinos continue to see the Carolinas as having more jobs, cheaper housing and a better climate.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Not that the Charlotte region and the two states have escaped the economic slowdown. One-way bus and plane tickets from Charlotte to Latin America have more than doubled, in part because of the loss of jobs. Other Latinos are leaving the area due to tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
But far more Latinos continue to arrive than leave.
It's all about the jobs, says Angeles Ortega-Moore, executive director of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte.
“The moment companies in Charlotte, or in any place, stop hiring undocumented people, that's the moment we will actually start seeing the decline,” she said. “Enforcement is something people are willing to risk in order to provide for their families.”
Hector, 49, moved to the United States illegally 41/2 years ago from Mexico. He moved to Charlotte last year after being laid off in New Orleans. He quickly found a job digging trenches for a phone company. The work ran out a week ago and he was laid off. He plans to stay in the area a few more months, saying the job market here is still better than the rest of the country.
In Long Island, N.Y., jobs for immigrants have almost dried up, says Sister Breige Lavery, coordinator of the Hispanic Apostolate of the South Fork.
“On any given day, outside the 7-11 in the village of South Hampton, there are 60 to 70 workers looking for work,” she said. Many are moving to the South where they believe they can find better jobs and a better cost of living.
“You can buy a house down in North Carolina for much less than you can here,” she said.
In Charlotte, however, the influx of job-seekers outnumbers the available jobs.
Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont in Charlotte has seen a 238 percent increase in job-hunting Hispanics in its JobLink program on South Boulevard between the first six months of 2008 vs. the first six months of 2007.
The numbers have been so overwhelming that the program this month began offering daily orientation tours specifically aimed at Hispanics who have questions about Charlotte's job scene.
Scared but still coming
Mecklenburg's Hispanic population grew 11 percent from 2006 to 2007. During that time the county unveiled a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement fugitive team and a new county sheriff program that gives deputies the power to jail illegal immigrants for eventual deportation.
More than 4,700 illegal immigrants have been placed into deportation proceedings since the sheriff's program began in April 2006.
Nearly 14,000 illegal immigrants have been deported this year out of the Atlanta field office, which overseas operations in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina – a 220percent increase from 2005.
“The fact of the matter is more illegal aliens are being identified, arrested and deported,” said Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE spokeswoman.
William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, cited the recent study by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that supports tougher immigration enforcement, that said illegal immigrants declined 11 percent from August 2007 to May.
“The illegal aliens are feeling the heat from authorities, groups, and American citizens,” Gheen said in a statement. “Many are getting the clear message to vamoose.”
Rafael Prieto, editor and publisher of Mi Gente, a Spanish-language newspaper in Charlotte, said the tougher enforcement has terrorized segments of the immigrant community. He questioned whether new arrivals realize the intensity of the federal and county crackdowns. The Census says 633,488 Latinos lived in North Carolina in 2007, nearly an 8 percent increase from the year before. South Carolina had 168,000, up 8.73percent. Many experts believe the actual numbers are much higher. Nationwide, the Hispanic population is projected to nearly triple, from 46.7 million to 132.8 million by 2050 and nearly 1 in 3 U.S. residents would be Hispanic.