US Economic Slowdown Hurts Small Immigrant Businesses

The slowing U.S. economy and rising unemployment are affecting a wide range of businesses across the country, including those owned by immigrants. Small immigrant businesses in Prince William County, Virginia, outside Washington, are among those hard-hit -- not just by the economic slowdown but by county ordinances targeting illegal immigrants or undocumented workers. VOA's Bill Rodgers visited the county and has this report.

On the Route 1 corridor, Club Video Mexico has been in business for 19 years, but co-owner Pablo Vargas has never seen business so bad.

"Nobody wants to buy anything. They'd rather save money than spend it!" Vargas said.

Even larger immigrant businesses are affected. Carlos Castro owns three supermarkets, catering mainly to Latinos. He explains, "When it comes to food, even though it's said we have to eat every day, it has dropped considerably. In this store, we are down about 15 percent from the previous year, and in Alexandria it is about 22 or 25 percent."

Asian-owned businesses are affected, too. Yong-jae Park is the manager of the Korean-American Hanmi Bank office in northern Virginia. He says he is making fewer loans to his Asian clients. "The number of inquiries has substantially declined in the last couple of months and then the number of loans I am processing, I see there is some slowdown," he says.

Prince William County, near Washington, DC, has grown substantially in recent years, and now has a large immigrant population.

But it, too, has been affected by the nationwide housing downturn, the credit crunch and financial uncertainty.

At the county's Chamber of Commerce, Chairwoman Joanne Bell and President Laurie Wieder have noticed the change.

"A large portion of the members who do not renew their membership are businesses that are going out of business," Wieder said. "That happens every year. But this year, certainly, there were more of those who closed the doors of their businesses."

The renewal rate was down between two and three percent, though more new members joined the chamber in 2007.

Chamber member Julie Do is worried. She is a Vietnamese immigrant who owns a nail and tanning salon. She says, "People have not come in as regularly as they used to. Instead of every two to three weeks, they prolong to a month and some people decide not to get [their nails] done because they don't have the money to spend, so they cut back."

The slowdown in construction and home sales in the county is only partly to blame for the business falloff. A county ordinance targeting illegal immigrants also has hurt business. Among other things, it will allow police to check the immigration status of anyone who breaks the law.

This has scared undocumented workers, who are finding less work anyway because of the slow economy.

Many are thinking of leaving the area, says one man who did not give his name.  "We'll keep struggling as much as we can," he said in Spanish, "and if we can't go on then it's better to go back to our countries to see if we can make a living there."

And many have moved on, hurting the businesses that rely on their spending.

At the El Portal restaurant, owner Manuel Arbaiza is in danger of losing his $400,000 investment. He says he saw an immediate change after the county passed its anti-illegal immigrant measures. "Before July, a good day for us was anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000, on weekends," Arbaiza said. "And now we have days of $80. I mean, it costs us more money to open up the restaurant than if we were to close it."

Closing would mean letting go more workers, further worsening the already deteriorating economy. For businesses, including those owned by immigrants, tough times seem to lie ahead.


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