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Milton, Florida: Another case of vanishing Latinos

08.13.08 | 2 Comments

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Restaurant owner Gerónimo Barragán saw ten of his employees arrested and deported earlier this year, some to his native Mexico, some to Guatemala. Santa Rosa County authorities also went to other businesses, looking for people using stolen Social Security numbers.

Since the raid on Feb. 6, the already small Hispanic community in the Florida Panhandle town of Milton has all but disappeared.

I expected Barragán to be a little sour about the experience, basing my assumption on this New York Times story from last June:

“It was very hard because the community is very small, and to see people who came to eat here all the time then come and close the business,” said Geronimo Barragan, who owns two branches of La Hacienda, Mexican restaurants where the police arrested 10 employees.

“I don’t blame them,” Mr. Barragan added. “It’s just that it hurts.”

But when I met him this Sunday, as we almost “flew” from Savannah, Ga., to New Orleans, La. in one day -with a flat tire mixed in-, his attitude was very far from militant.

Gerónimo Barragán, Milton, Florida

“Although this time it was our turn to lose, we agree with what [the country's] leaders are doing,” he told me in a very subdued tone. We were talking in the silence of one of his two local La Hacienda restaurants (they close on Sunday.) He’d just come back from the Spanish-language service at his Baptist church. A group of friends of his discussed church matters in another table behind us.

“The country is fighting for having everyone documented, legal,” Barragán added. “We’re not against this. The country is doing what it has to do.”

Barragán -41, born outside Guadalajara, México- said after the raid on his restaurants he met the county sheriff to disassociate himself from a local demonstration organized to protest the raid.

“I went there to tell him we harbored no resentment against him. We were not involved in [the protest] nor in any other movement like that. We just wanted help to reopen our business. I understood it was his duty.”

The Times used the raids in Milton as an example of a trend: local law enforcement agencies finding indirect ways, in this case identity theft charges, to enforce immigration laws on their own. Underlining this point, Sheriff Wendell Hall’s own website presents the operation as “a roundup of undocumented workers.” [See the press release on the arrests here and one on the convictions of some of the workers here.]

The Hispanic population in the town and the county, which had increased in recent years as in other parts of the South, has now diminished abruptly - reflecting what we saw in Manassas, Virginia, and what has happened in Postville, Iowa, after the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. The church Barragán attends, the only Hispanic one in town, saw its congregation dwindle from over 80 to under 40.

“A lot of the members had to go back to their countries,” said the church’s Bolivian pastor, Rubén Quiroz, 38, who arrived in Milton with his Argentine wife and kids 13 months ago to minister to this group and start a Ph.D. in philosophy and theology at Louisiana Baptist University.

Ruben Quiroz, pastor. Milton, Florida

The arrested undocumented workers were deported, and their families went home to meet up with them. “Others, in fear of being deported or put in jail, made the decision to go back to their places of origin,” Quiroz said. “Many left for their countries and some, for other states.”

“For Hispanics here, it was very hard,” he added. “They couldn’t get jobs, they spent all of their savings. We had to help them as a church.”

People were scared, too. “For a while, you couldn’t see one Hispanic in the supermarket,” Quiroz said. “For many months, people were all hidden, in fear.”

As for Barragán, he’s had trouble in finding new employees for La Hacienda. Some of his current workers are American-born Latinos, others are non-Latinos. “We have struggled a little,” he said. “We had to train the Americans, because they are not familiar with restaurant work.”

When asked about the election, he said he and his wife have supported President Bush — although only she has voted until now. Barragán said he has not made up his mind and he wasn’t sure that he was going to vote this time either. Speaking about the candidates and the two parties, he said: “I don’t know that we would change, we’re not convinced of changing.”

Permanent link: http://diegograglia.net/newyorktomexico/?p=39

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