Gaspar Perez, owner of the Hispanic mini-mall El Mercadito de Memphis located in Hickory Hill, and his wife Luz Velasquez, have found that business has dropped off dramatically in the Trump era.(Photo: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)
MEMPHIS — The small business owners who rent space inside El Mercadito shopping mall offer a bit of everything: jewelry, insurance, cellphones, cowboy boots. Shoppers can play video games, eat at a restaurant or pause at the monument to the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is decorated with Christmas lights.
Most of the shoppers are Mexican immigrants or their children. But business at Memphis mall has dropped by about 50% in the past couple of months as wary immigrants stay close to home, said mall owner Gaspar Perez.
“Everything that the president said has affected me,” he said.
President Trump's push for increased deportations has spread apprehension among millions of Hispanics living throughout the nation.
In Memphis, interviews suggest strict new immigration policies are prompting some immigrants to avoid unnecessary trips. Despite the apprehension, many immigrants try to go about their lives as normal.
No one can predict exactly how strict new federal immigration policies will play out.
Immigration sweeps under the Trump administration have recently taken place elsewhere in the United States, but apparently not so far in Memphis and Shelby County, home to about 57,000 Hispanics, or about 6% of the population. Most are Mexican immigrants who began arriving in the mid-1990s or are children of immigrants.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Thomas Byrd said in an email that the agency “does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately." He wouldn't reveal plans.
“As a matter of policy, and the safety of our personnel, we do not discuss upcoming operations," Byrd said.
The Trump administration issued executive orders in February that subject virtually every person living in the U.S. illegally to arrest and deportation — a shift from earlier policies that focused on those who had committed serious crimes.
Elena Salazar sets up displays of her wares inside of El Mercadito de Memphis. Mall owner Gaspar Perez says business has dropped off dramatically during the Trump era. (Photo: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)
In Memphis, the new rules have raised fears among people who themselves are here illegally, as well as their children. Some immigrants who have legal documents are on edge, too, following the travel ban imposed in January on immigrants from mostly Muslim countries. Many legal immigrants had their visas canceled, although courts later overturned the action. And during the campaign, Trump pledged to strip legal protections from hundreds of thousands of young people brought to this country as children, many of them from Mexico. So far, he's left the program in place.
In Memphis, many adult immigrants from Mexico and central America arrived illegally or overstayed visas. Historically, the federal government has not strictly enforced immigration law in nonborder areas. Many unauthorized immigrants have often lived openly with limited rights. Many have bought houses and raised children — those born in the United States are citizens, regardless of parents' status.
Last week, immigration agents were rumored to be about to conduct sweeps in Memphis, said Luz Velasquez of El Mercadito mall. That day, many people didn't go to work, and several of the mall vendors closed, she said in Spanish.
Perez, the mall owner, said in Spanish that an increasing number of people are bringing personal belongings to a man who works at the mall and specializes in shipping items back to Mexico.
Perez and Velasquez, both 39, are likewise thinking of returning to Mexico.
“I have this business, and I also have houses,” Perez said. “We’ve thought maybe it’s better to sell and go back to our country. Or go to another country.”
Hector Baledo starts to set up his small drug store inside of El Mercadito de Memphis. Mall owner Gaspar Perez has found that business dropped off dramatically during the Trump era. (Photo: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)
At La Michoacana ice cream parlor, Hispanic newspapers carry headlines such as "The threat of deportation" and "Our rights with immigration agents — what to do if you're arrested." Staffers said people seem nervous, but they haven’t seen sales drop.
“We only see people have fear, but other than that, no,” said Ana Montiel, 24, who's married to one of the owners of the family business.
It's not clear how far the government will go and when it will do it. Shipping millions of people out of the country would likely take more manpower than immigration authorities have. The Trump administration also aims to hire an additional 10,000 agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a step that would require Congressional approval.
Large-scale sweeps could also provoke backlash from employers who've grown to rely on unauthorized immigrant labor.
“While the number of undocumented workers in Memphis is small relative to the overall labor force, they probably would have a fairly dramatic impact on certain parts of construction and distribution,” said David Ciscel, a University of Memphis economics professor emeritus involved in a 2001 study on the Hispanic work force.
The construction and distribution industries “vastly underestimate” the number of unauthorized workers they hire, Ciscel said, pointing out most workers may have legally obtained documents, such as driver’s licenses, or purchased documents to land a job.
In the Memphis-area home-building industry, foreign-born labor isn't a priority issue, said several members of a West Tennessee Home Builders Association committee that met in Memphis this week. Committee members said they use the federal E-Verify database to ensure a legal workforce and provide workers' compensation insurance subject to government audits, but their major issue is finding enough skilled workers to replace retiring baby boomers as competition from booming markets like Nashville and Atlanta draws away construction workers.
For farmers in the region, upcoming seasons for planting and harvesting produce and tobacco will reveal the White House policy's impact on migrant labor, said Lee Maddox, a spokesman for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation in Smyrna.
Farmers have a legal source of migrant foreign labor, the federal H-2A temporary agricultural workers program. With a required wage of at least $10.92 an hour this year in Tennessee, the complicated program currently has 415 workers statewide, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
A group of Hispanic day laborers gather in the Auto Zone parking lot on Jackson Ave. waiting for a chance at work. In the past two decades, Hispanic immigrants, including many here illegally, have become an established part of the local economy, particularly in fields like construction. (Photo: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)
Amid the uncertainty and rumors, many aspects of immigrant life in Memphis continue as normal.
On March 1, evening Spanish-language Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Michael’s Catholic church was so full that people stood in the aisles and in the back.
Farida Flores Arita, 18, said she's continuing life as usual. She works in La Michoacana ice cream shop and has legal documents through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that Trump said he'd end, but has left in place for now.
She said the immigration news and armed robberies in the neighborhood have made her pay more attention to her surroundings. But she hasn’t changed her own routine.
She said her older brother, a college student who also has Deferred Action legal documents, recently went on a hiking trip to another state. She said she urged him to be careful, but to go anyway. He did.
“If we let fear overtake our lives, we won’t be able to do anything the way we used to,” she said.