Undocumented customers disappear from businesses
Arizona Republic
December  6,  2007

Sarah Muench

Some Chandler businesses are taking a hit this holiday season as their main clientele - undocumented immigrants - leave the city as the state's new hiring law nears.

Many of these shops that cater to the undocumented population are struggling to stay afloat as many of their customers either pack up and move or save money as they wait to see if the new law will go into effect.

But the law isn't the only factor; an overall economic downturn, especially in the housing and construction markets, is causing job loss for many undocumented immigrants, economists say.

These Chandler businesses usually bustling with customers now seem like ghost towns.

"We have many illegal (customers) around this area and all of them have left for Mexico, Guatemala, New Mexico," said Teresa Quintero, who owns Quintero Jewelry & More, inside Plaza del Sol shopping center near Arizona Avenue and Galveston Street. "Now we can't even pay half our (store's) rent."

The new hiring law, signed by Gov. Janet Napolitano in July, is aimed at clamping down on illegal immigration in Arizona by pulling the plug on the job magnet that has drawn undocumented immigrants to the state by the tens of thousands over the past decade.

It is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, but business groups have asked a federal judge to toss out the law, arguing it is unconstitutional and invites racial profiling. They favor a federal solution that allows foreign workers to enter legally to fill gaps in the labor market.

In the meantime, many immigrants are holding on to their money while they wait.

Chandler is no different.

More than two months ago, Quintero said her jewelry store was full of customers.

"A lot of workers used to come in to buy gifts to send to their family in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras," Quintero said. "'I want this watch to send home,' they would say."

But now Quintero and her husband Urbano are "just holding on," and even hand out fliers on the street. "But nobody comes," she said.

Dawn McLaren, a research economist at Arizona State University, said part of the reason for the lack of business is the economy is heading for a slowdown.

"That's why immigrants leave," McLaren said. "If there are no jobs, they don't want to be there. They take their demand with them."

Carnicería and Panadería Mama Mia, a grocery store with Mexican products near Arizona Avenue and Pecos Road, is trying to counteract the customer loss by appealing to different clientele.

"We are changing the store over to more of an Anglo-American store, but we'll keep it (mostly) an ethnic store," said George Mihilli, the store's owner. He said he's lost 50 percent to 60 percent of his sales.

"They spent money. What their (legal) status is is none of my business. They brought the state business."

Mihilli said he's advertising in English-language newspapers, significantly lowering prices on products and axing services like Western Union wire transfers and international phone cards.

El Rancho supermarket near Arizona Avenue and Ray Road usually gears up to continuously restock its shelves during the holiday season, said store manager Phillip Vigil. But this year he's hearing concerns from his vendors.

"There would normally be a lot more business this time of year," Vigil said. "A product that would have multiple turns hasn't changed. It's not because (undocumented customers) are saving for Christmas or that new Wii or Playstation, but they don't know if they'll be out of their apartment."

Fewer undocumented immigrants are gathering at a Chandler day labor center and along Arizona Avenue soliciting work, said Mainor Martínez, an undocumented construction worker from Campeche, Mexico.

"There's no work. They aren't hiring anyone and it's really difficult," Martínez said. "They aren't looking for us anymore. They are afraid to give us work."

Two of the workers who normally gather at the center recently left the state because they couldn't pay rent or buy food, Martínez said. Many have been forced to share apartments together and several have become homeless because of lack of work.

"No one is buying anything anymore; the business has stopped," said Fermín Valenzuela, an undocumented landscaper from Sinaloa, Mexico. "We can't call our families and they (probably) are worried."

Many businesses are sticking out the uncertainty the hiring law has added to difficult times, said McLaren, the ASU economist.

"The uncertainty behind the employer sanctions law might make business investment a little more hesitant," McLaren said. "They want to wait and see how this law plays out. It's so vague what may happen."

The Quinteros, for example, said they planned on opening a second Chandler store. But after the hiring law gained approval they decided to wait.

Some businesses won't be able to survive the economic slump and will close down, McLaren said.

"It will come back one day," she said, but "the expectation is not for rapid growth in the next few months."