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Latino businesses feel pinch of new immigration law

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
  • Arizona law scaring customers away, business owners say
  • "They're afraid of being out on the streets," taqueria owner says
  • Bodega owner wonders how he'll pay his workers, who are here legally
  • Meat distributor says both legal and illegal Hispanics are considering leaving Arizona

Phoenix, Arizona (CNN) -- Hector Manrique takes a look around his taqueria and sighs. It's 3:30 in the afternoon, and usually around this time at least five or six tables are occupied by day laborers fresh off work, or schoolchildren and families in search of a torta or taco after school.

But today, Taqueria Guadalajara's plastic lawn chairs and tables are empty, and so is the tip jar on the counter. Street traffic in this predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Phoenix, Arizona, is also lighter than usual, says Manrique, who opened the casual Mexican eatery in 2003.

Not even a week has passed since Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law tough measures targeting illegal immigrants, but Manrique and others who own businesses that cater primarily to Phoenix's large Hispanic community say they are already feeling the effects.

"I think they're afraid of being out on the streets knowing they're going to get pulled over by the sheriff," says Manrique, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Phoenix since the 1990s. "A lot of people told me they're afraid to go out even though the law's not fully passed."

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The governor's signing of the bill has ignited a firestorm of debate in Arizona, with activists on both sides of the issue clamoring to keep the issue alive. If the new law withstands the numerous legal challenges being threatened, it could take effect as soon as August.

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Supporters say the law will temper the negative effects of immigration, such as crime and the misuse of taxpayer dollars to fund health care and education needs of illegal immigrants.

Opponents fear that the "reasonable suspicion" standard applied to enforcing the bill will create a climate that fosters fear and condones racial profiling, drawing comparisons to fascism and apartheid.

On Monday, Brewer deflected concerns that the state's new immigration law will hurt economic development, saying many businesses have long wanted tougher action.

Manrique says customers started to become scarce a few weeks ago, when news surfaced that the bill was likely to pass. Then came Friday, the day Brewer signed the legislation.

"The streets just went empty. Usually on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, we're packed. But this weekend was empty like I'd never seen it before," Manrique said.

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Across town, Jose Rivas' bodega offers customers a money wiring teller, a butcher counter and a wide variety of Mexican brands of cookies, beverages and household goods. He said his business also is taking a hit, and that the effects could be long-term.

"Ours is a culture that consumes a lot -- food, drinks, clothes, you name it," said Rivas, periodically stopping to greet or wave at a customer. "If no one's out shopping, how can I afford to employ my workers? They're all here legally. What happens to them?"

Ernesto Tercero, a first-generation Arizonan whose family is from Mexico, owns a meat distribution company that supplies dozens of stores in Phoenix. He says SB 1070 is a slap in the face to the Hispanic community.

"These people came here because they were told that there were jobs. They were brought here under promises of work, the American dream, and for many years we kept the dream alive," he said.

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Tercero, a tall, outspoken man whose gregarious manner underscores his deep connection to the community, noted that Hispanics both legal and illegal are considering leaving Arizona to avoid confrontations with law enforcement.

"They got people who've been here 20 years, they got kids, people who came when their kids were 3, 4 years old. Now they're 20 years old. They can't go back to Mexico. They've never even been to Mexico."

Growing up in Phoenix, Tercero recalls a time when Spanish was discouraged from being spoken in schools and Hispanics were limited in the jobs they could pursue and the places they could live.

Since then, self-made businessmen like Tercero, Rivas and Manrique have become models of success in Phoenix's small business community, said Todd Landfried, a spokesman for Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform.

"This law punishes local business owners who make a living catering to a Latino market," Landfried said. "They've done everything expected of them. So why are they the ones getting punished?"