Two weeks after the Obama administration announced a new immigration crackdown, businesses in Baltimore said they are still feeling the aftershocks, as customers stay home amid spiking fear about the threat of further roundups.
"Look," said Jesus Pena, gesturing Thursday evening at the lack of customers in Elizabeth Fashion, the Colombian clothing store he has owned in Baltimore for more than 10 years. "Nobody. Nobody has come in all day. Yesterday, one person came in."
The Department of Homeland Security said this month that it is planning arrests focused on families — many of them women and children — who have entered the United States illegally since 2014. Officials said they are responding to a new surge of immigrants apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and trying to deter others from attempting the trip.
As word of those plans spread, sales slumped between 30 percent and 80 percent this month, more than half a dozen merchants in East Baltimore said this week. In some cases, even employees stayed home.
Such merchants have transformed the commercial core of Baltimore's historically blue-collar Highlandtown neighborhood as longtime European immigrants are supplanted by those from Central and South America. Commercial signs in Spanish are growing as common as those in English along Eastern Avenue.
The slowdown coincides with what is typically a quiet season, as cold weather sets in and people cut back on spending after the holidays. Still, many said, this decline is unusually dramatic.
"It's the slowest time of the year … but now it is really slow," said Mario Diaz, the owner of Sneaky Feet, a store near Patterson Park that sells athletic apparel. "Right now it is almost nothing."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested more than 120 people over the first weekend in January, mostly in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. The arrests are focused on those who have been ordered to leave the country by an immigration court and have exhausted any appeal for asylum.
In Maryland, immigrant advocates said they have not confirmed any instances of apprehensions of recently arrived families. ICE authorities have not released a state breakdown of the January arrests.
The flood of reports indicating an increased ICE presence in the Baltimore region has also started to subside, said Elizabeth Alex, regional director for CASA, a leading immigrant advocacy group in Maryland, which operates a hotline. But worries persist, she said.
"People are scared, and it's not good for our city, it's not good for the economy, if people's normal lives are disrupted in that way," Alex said.
Without any indication of mass arrests in Maryland, merchants said shoppers have started to return.
At Los Compadres on Eastern Avenue, customers typically pop in and out at a steady clip, sending money transfers or browsing the children's clothes, shoes and cookware. Ana Barrera, who has worked at the store for about 10 years, said business fell "a lot" the first week of January and she's had to reassure clients that immigration agents have not visited the shop. People remain hesitant to linger.
"I can tell you that many people is scared to go out, even to go to work," she said. "It's getting better … but the first week, it was really bad."
The unease generated by the crackdown dealt a blow to a growing part of Baltimore's economy.
The number of Hispanic-owned businesses in Baltimore increased more than 70 percent between 2007 and 2012, topping 1,500, according to estimates from the Survey of Business Owners, released by the U.S. Census last month. Those businesses generate more than $250 million in sales, receipts and shipment values, the survey found.
Business has expanded as the Hispanic population has grown, said Evaristo Guzman, 48, the owner of Mercado Cinco de Mayo, a grocery store near Patterson Park where the signs are in Spanish, pinatas dangle from the ceiling and the many different tortilla types take up two long shelves.
Guzman entered the country illegally himself about 20 years ago, starting work as a dishwasher and eventually gaining legal status. He and his eight siblings now own three grocery stores, three restaurants and a produce business in Maryland, employing about 60 people.
"Each year, [business] grows a little," he said.
Baltimore's Hispanic population increased nearly 22 percent from 2010 to 2014, to more than 27,750, according to the most recent American Community Survey estimates. Those gains paralleled those in Maryland, where the Hispanic population grew about 20 percent, to nearly 516,000 Hispanic residents.
The city has welcomed the newcomers and encouraged their entrepreneurial activity, starting a micro-loan program and offering technical assistance to Spanish speakers regardless of status, said Catalina Rodriguez Lima, director of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs. The presence of new residents has strengthened city neighborhoods, she said.
"We certainly see immigrants and refugees as economic engines and therefore want to make sure we have the tools needed for them to succeed," Rodriguez Lima said. "While this is disruptive at the moment, the bigger picture for us is we need to continue investing in opportunities for immigrants."
But Baltimore merchants said it's been a tumultuous 12 months, with rioting shaking the city in April, only to be followed by this contraction.
"It was improving a little bit and then this happened," said Jose Molina, manager of Five Star Wireless in Fells Point, where he said sales are down about 50 percent. "People are afraid to leave the house. They don't go out to walk. … We don't know how this will end."
Sales at Mercado Cinco de Mayo declined about 30 percent in the first few days of January, but customers have come back, Guzman said.
"Thank goodness it's returning to normal," he said. "If they do something, we will see."
Maryland is home to about 233,000 unauthorized residents, just over half from Mexico and Central America, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute.
The state also has about 4,000 "priority immigration" cases of the sort targeted in the new ICE crackdown — the fourth-highest in the U.S., behind Texas, California and Florida, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. More than 100,000 families with adults and children have crossed the border since 2014.
"I see in my friends, it's affecting them a lot," said Melissa Mejia, 36, of Baltimore, who works in housekeeping. "People are losing their jobs because they're afraid to go out."
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Last week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security asking agents to avoid public places, such as schools and grocery stores, in their enforcement. Baltimore's public schools sent letters to parents with a similar message.
The city has also worked with community groups to try to provide information and reassure the local population that city agencies are not working with immigration officials, Rodriguez Lima said.
But people have not forgotten a 2007 incident in Baltimore when the ICE apprehended about two dozen people near a 7-Eleven in Fells Point, where would-be day laborers congregate looking for work, she said.
"It's hard to give them some sort of assurance," she said. "It is much easier to go out and say we haven't learned of any arrests pertaining to this particular target."
A 2011 policy memo requires ICE agents to get special permission to take action in sensitive locations, such as schools and hospitals. The ICE does not discuss details of pending enforcement actions to preserve officer safety.
In a statement, ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said that agents can only detain people "in order for ICE to remove them from the country."