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Sunday, October 10, 2010

'They just took them and left us here' Deportations, job loss thin ranks of Sonoma County's immigrants

Published: Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 4:09 p.m.

Karen Lopez's mother always warned her that immigration agents could show up any time. Lopez, a Rosa High School senior who was born in the United States, usually brushed aside such talk.

“I just wanted her to change the conversation. I didn't want to talk about that,” she said.

Two years ago, Karen was in her bedroom getting ready for school when a couple of “black cars” converged on the family's two-story Comalli Street home, blocking off the quiet Roseland neighborhood.

Her father was pulling the car out of the garage when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents asked if his name was Alfredo Lopez. He said yes.

“They told my mom to go downstairs,” said Karen last week, speaking in a monotone. “They put the handcuffs on both of them. My aunt lives across the street, so she came. They just took them. They just left us here.”

Karen's parents separately entered the United States illegally from Mexico in 1989. The couple, who worked as real estate loan officers, had spent thousands of dollars on immigration lawyers, some more scrupulous than others, only to end up getting deported.

Few people beyond friends and family noticed the Dec. 19 departure of Karen's parents, Ana Rosa Tapia and Alfredo Lopez. It was late 2008, the country's housing crisis had only begun to unravel, and the local effects of an immigration crackdown still seemed more rumor than reality.

But when Karen's parents left the country, they joined thousands of predominantly Mexican immigrants — both legal and illegal — who in the past five years have been pushed out of Sonoma County by immigration agents or economic woes, according to a review by The Press Democrat of recent population estimates, federal immigration statistics and county jail statistics.

From 2006 to 2009, the number of non-citizens living in Sonoma County dropped by 12,257 people, according to survey figures released this month by the Census Bureau. The decline is more than three times greater than the estimated increase in naturalized citizens during the same period.

The survey reports a non-citizen population of nearly 43,000 in 2009, down from a high of nearly 55,000 four years earlier. The decline is supported by local statistics that reflect stepped up enforcement efforts by immigration officials and the effect of a recession that destabilized the immigrant community.

Since 2006, almost 3,600 people in Sonoma County jails have been handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. It's unknown how many actually were actually deported during that period because until earlier this year, ICE did not track deportations at the county level.

Quantifying the number of immigrants, including legal permanent residents, who have left the county because of the economy is more difficult.

But within Sonoma County's Mexican immigrant communities, residents tell of relatives and friends leaving in droves, sometimes for another county or state, sometimes for their native Mexico. Forces at play include fallout from the mortgage crisis, a shortage of jobs and, of course, deportation.

“A lot of families left because basically here they lost everything,” said Elizabeth Garcia, an immigration counselor for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.

Garcia said she believes most of those who left were here illegally. What's more, she said, hard economic times and tougher border enforcement appear to be discouraging some from entering illegally or returning after they have been deported.

“Relatives are saying that their loved ones have tried three or four times, then they gave up,” she said.

Gail Ahlas, superintendent of Santa Rosa's Roseland School District, said she and other school district staff believe the recession, more than immigration enforcement, has forced families out of the county.

“There's been a lot of mobility here because of the economy,” she said, adding that 70 families left the school district and the county in the past two years because of financial issues.

But Ahlas said student enrollment has actually continued to grow.

“We are getting other families, for a variety of economic reasons, who are moving into Roseland,” she said. “We're losing all these kids, but they're being replaced by other kids.”

Nalleli Lopez was 2½ years old when her mother came with her husband to the North Coast. The family left Jalisco, Mexico, for better economic opportunities.

Lopez grew up in Petaluma and graduated from Casa Grande High School. Early last year, she moved to Kansas with her husband, a United States citizen born in Kansas.

The young couple met in Las Vegas and tried for about a year to make a living in Petaluma before deciding to leave. Lopez worked as a secretary for a Petaluma church, and her husband, 22, worked at a poultry processor.

“We started a family. The way the economy was there, we were living under my parents' roof,” Lopez said in a telephone interview from Kansas. “Both of us were working, and we didn't even have enough money to get an apartment.”

She said her husband now works as a production technician for a bio-science company and she stays at home with the baby. As soon as she arrived in Kansas, she noticed a lot of California license plates.

“California is my home, but money-wise it's so much better here,” Lopez said. “We have a townhome (for) only $590 a month.”

Her mother, Norma Lopez, 39, still lives in Petaluma. She said it is ironic that her daughter left Sonoma County to search for economic opportunity, since that's why she left Mexico.

“The same thing we did to our parents, our kids are now doing to us now,” she said.

In the past four years, seven families have taken their kids out of James Monroe Elementary School in west Santa Rosa because a family member has been deported, said Rachel Valenzuela, the school's principal. One mother recently took three kids — in 6th grade, 4th grade and kindergarten — back to Mexico because her husband was deported.

The woman, a stay-at-home mom who also had a daughter at Piner High School, struggled to stay in the country but couldn't make ends meet, Valenzuela said.

Just before she left, the family was living in a friend's garage. The 6th grade son had begun to act out and had been called to her office, Valenzuela said.

“Her son appeared very conflicted because he missed his dad,” Valenzuela said. “But he was torn because he didn't want to leave the country.”

The recession also has contributed to enrollment flux, she said. In the past two years, three families have removed their children from school because parents couldn't find work.

Elsewhere in Santa Rosa, a woman who illegally brought her 18-year-old son to the United States from Mexico six years ago said she is ready to go back. The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her teenage son has been in an immigration holding cell for 45 days.

The boy had just graduated from high school and had plans to attend Santa Rosa Junior College when he arrested in July, his mother said. He did not have a driver's license, and the car he had just purchased from a friend was uninsured.

He appeared before an immigration judge in San Francisco last week for a bond hearing. If he is deported, the woman said she will probably return to Mexico.

“It's not right that he be alone,” she said. “He's never been separated from us.”

In the past decade, ICE has processed the removal — the agency's term for deportation — of 100,237 illegal immigrants through its San Francisco office, according to ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice. It oversees a region that extends from Bakersfield to the Oregon border and includes Hawaii.

One reason the rate of deportations sharply increased in 2007, Kice said, was because the agency began including the numbers of “voluntary returns,” people who did not fight the process, in figures for overall deportation statistics.

The increase also reflects greater efforts to identify and take custody of illegal immigrants in jail, she said, and to locate fugitives that include those who have ignored an order of deportation as well as those who were deported but later returned.

Almost two thirds of those deported in the past decade were convicted of a crime, Kice said. The rest were “non-criminal aliens.”

On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE Director John Morton announced 392,000 deportations nationwide for the fiscal year ending July 1, 2010, a record number.

A recent ICE report tallying Sonoma County removals from the beginning of March to the end of August found that 424 illegal immigrants were handed over to ICE from the Sonoma County jail. Of them, 206 had been convicted of crimes.

The remaining 218 were “non-criminals,” a category that includes individuals who have been previously deported or have outstanding deportation orders. While they have no criminal charges against them, Kice said they could have overstayed their visas or have gang affiliations.

In early September, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States from Latin American countries was nearly two-thirds smaller between March 2007 and March 2009 than from March 2000 to March 2005.

Pew, a non-partisan research organization, said the decline caused an 8 percent reduction in the nation's total illegal immigrant population, from a peak of 12 million in March 2007 to a little more than 11 million in March 2009. It estimates that illegal immigration from Mexico, which averaged about 500,000 undocumented entries a year, has fallen to about 150,000 a year.

The Pew report found no evidence that illegal immigrants from Mexico were actually returning to their native country. But last week's census data, part of the annual American Community Survey, showed a significant decline in the number of non-citizens.

“The numbers don't tell the full story. It's a lot more profound than that,” said Valenzuela, the principal at Monroe Elementary.