About 80,000 people who live in Pierce County were not U.S. citizens at birth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Most are in the workforce. Many own their own companies.
And some members of the local business community fear President Donald Trump’s plan to ramp up deportation efforts could hit those entrepreneurs hard.
“I think businesses are going to go under,” said Martha Cerna, executive director of the Puget Sound Latino Chamber of Commerce.
Many local immigrant-owned businesses sell primarily within their own communities and could be particularly affected by increased deportations, she said.
“They can’t make it without their employees, and they can’t make it without the people who are buying their products,” Cerna said.
It’s difficult to say how many Pierce County residents might be deported.
Trump’s immigration enforcement plan, as outlined during his campaign and by executive action this year, includes increasing deportations in the name of national security and public safety.
Under the president’s direction, Border Patrol and immigration agents have been told to prioritize the removal of people in the country illegally who have been convicted of any crime, not just serious offenses, as under the Obama administration.
Nationally, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates, between a quarter and a third of immigrants to the United States are undocumented, said Jacob Vigdor, University of Washington professor of public policy and governance.
If Pierce County mirrors that, about 20,000 to 25,000 residents would lack legal status, he said.
The local undocumented population likely is smaller, Vigdor said.
More of the undocumented immigrants in the United States come from Latin America than other regions, he said. In Pierce County, 27 percent of immigrants were born in Latin America, compared with 51 percent nationally.
Still, he said, “That’s thousands of people earning tens of millions of dollars of income every year and turning around to spend most of that money in the local economy.
“The impact (of increased deportations) would be felt most significantly at the businesses employing and serving these migrants, but there’s a wide swath of small businesses for which a small drop in the customer base would spell the difference between profit and loss.”
On the other hand, Ira Mehlman doesn’t think local businesses would be hurt by deportations.
Most jobs left open by deportations would be filled by workers getting higher wages, said Mehlman, a Seattle-based spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports stricter policies to decrease immigration to the United States.
“As long as everybody has to operate on a level playing field … it should not adversely affect the local businesses,” he said.
The economy adjusted to the large number of undocumented people working here and would adjust to their absence, he argues.
And Mehlman thinks higher wages could lessen the impact on social services.
Eleanora Paley-Shwab was an economist in Russia before she studied to become a licensed practical nurse after she immigrated to the United States in 1992.
Since then she’s lived in Tacoma, where she works at an assisted living facility and helps as an interpreter at the Neighborhood Clinic, which offers free medical care to those in need.
“This country is built on immigrants,” she said. “We are all immigrants.”
Of increased deportations and how they could affect the local workforce, she said: “How many housekeepers, kitchen aides or caregivers are immigrants? Who is going to work? Who is going to take care of your grandparents?”
Paley-Shwab became a U.S. citizen in 1997, about the same time as Josefina Clarivel Manzueta, who volunteers at the clinic as a registered nurse.
In the Dominican Republic, Clarivel worked at a market her mother owned and studied engineering and electronics in college. When she finished college, she followed her father to the United States in 1992 and started her own family.
They moved to Washington from New York in 1997. She worked as a housekeeper for Virginia Mason Medical Center and later went to Tacoma Community College to get her nursing degree.
“I have altogether almost seven years to finish my bachelor’s, and that’s not even counting English and everything,” she said. “But it’s worth it.”
Asked about the Trump administration’s immigration policies and how they might affect the economy, she said she thinks they will be felt in Pierce County and beyond.
Those who fear deportation probably are focused on saving, she speculated.
“Would I be spending, contributing, going to the mall, going to the restaurants?” she said. “Am I contributing to the economy? No, I’m going to try to save up any penny I can, because if I get sent back, what am I going to live on?”
Giovanna Urdangarain, a Hispanic Studies professor at Pacific Lutheran University who volunteers as a translator at the clinic, said she thinks children who fear their parents could be deported are saving, too.
“I’ve heard people concerned about their parents and how they should be saving, or trying to help their parents to save money,” she said, speaking generally about college-age students here legally, not specifically about PLU.
“I have to say, I’ve been very inspired by the spirit of many young people in their 20s having this double responsibility.”
She knows many who worry that their parents could be deported are making emergency plans to care for younger siblings.
“It’s very scary,” she said.
As for social services, younger children without such a back-up legal guardian could become the responsibility of the state, by being placed in foster care, Urdangarain said.
“I keep thinking about the generation of kids that could be left without parents,” she said. “... We’re talking about a generation of American citizens who will grow up feeling rejected by the country that they call their own.”
Urdangarain was a high school literature teacher in Uruguay before moving to the United States in 1998 for graduate school. She earned her master’s degree and doctorate at Indiana University and eventually moved to Pierce County to teach at PLU.
She became a U.S. citizen last year, because she wanted to vote in the presidential election.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Cerna, the local Latino Chamber of Commerce director, said that while deportations increased under President Barack Obama, she doesn’t think Washington’s businesses were significantly affected.
“I don’t think our state was hit as badly,” she said.
Now, she said, she has to reassure her mother, who has a green card, that she won’t be deported.
“That’s crazy,” Cerna said. “A 97-year-old mother who is bedridden is afraid they’re going to come and take her.”
Policies that prompt that fear are bad for business, Cerna argues.
And not just immigrant-owned businesses, said Peggy Hansen, the president of the Latino chamber who owns a fabrication business in Lakewood.
“These people pay a lot into taxes,” she said of immigrant workers. “That’s the bottom line.”
Hansen’s grandfather came to the United States from Mexico, and she grew up in Pasadena, California.
At its busiest, she said, her company has about 10 employees, many part of the 9.6 percent of Pierce County’s immigrant workers who the Census Bureau estimates are employed in manufacturing.
When Hansen hires workers in the country on a temporary work visa, they pay for benefits such as Social Security, unemployment and workers’ compensation, though they’re not likely to benefit from it, she said.
While her employees must have valid documentation, undocumented workers elsewhere contribute a great deal in taxes, she said.
“The American person that has a business here, it will hurt their business,” Hansen said of deportations. “I guarantee you that. It will impact them, and they’re going to think: ‘Why didn’t we think this through?’ ”
Andy Chang, who runs Tacoma’s East Asia Supermarket, thinks his business and business in general will be OK despite all the talk and actions linked to deportation.
He has faith in the country’s checks and balances when it comes to the Trump presidency.
“We still have the Supreme Court, we have two houses,” he said. “Also, we still have a media, so we can control him.”
He’s in favor of giving Trump a chance to prove himself and hopes he’ll grow the country’s economy.
“Let him try a little bit,” Chang said. “... He’s a businessman, like us. But if you want to run a country, it’s not easy.”
Chang came to the United States from Vietnam in 1979, and a couple of years later opened the grocery store in Tacoma on 38th Street with his parents.
That shop was about 700 square feet. Now the business, which since has moved to another location on 38th Street, has grown to about 20,000 square feet.
In the years since he opened his first store, he’s seen the Lincoln District grow and thinks the area has about 25 to 30 immigrant-owned businesses today.
Chang said he has about 30 employees. Many are immigrants. Recently, he’s had workers who speak languages from Vietnam, China, Cambodia and the Philippines, as well as Spanish.
His shoppers come from all over as well, he said. Many were born in the United States, and many were born abroad. Some families have shopped at his market long enough that he gets to meet their children and grandchildren over time.
“They keep coming to my store,” he said.
Chang thinks he’s noticed fewer Latino customers this year, though it’s not clear why.
Rodolfo Hernandez McIntyre, whose real estate business in South King County has some Tacoma-area properties, said he’s noticed that too.
The first quarter of last year, Latinos accounted for 28 percent of his clients, he said. This year they’ve made up 5 percent.
It’s clear the Latino market has contracted, he said, and he attributes that to fear.
“They don’t know if it’s a good investment to buy right now,” Hernandez said. “Because a family member (who helps provide financially) might get deported.”
He closely follows the new administration’s policies to plan ahead.
Concerns about what increased deportations could do to some local businesses are valid, he said. In addition to worries about losing customers, he said he knows some business owners who have had employees stop showing up to work, for fear of being deported.
“My business is going to be OK,” Hernandez said. “... I can tell you, some businesses are going to die.”
He points out that America’s challenges with immigration aren’t new, and says he believes that in every challenge is an opportunity.
But, he added: “Ambiguity and uncertainty, it’s not good business. That’s for sure.”
OUR HOUSEHOLD INCOME
These figures represent income estimates for the past 12 months, based on surveys taken between 2011 and 2015 in the American Community Survey. They account for inflation.
$69,283* Mean earnings of immigrant households in Pierce County that had earnings.
$75,633 Mean earnings of U.S.-born Pierce County households that had earnings.
$2,489 Mean cash public assistance for Pierce County immigrant households that had such income.
$3,384 Mean cash public assistance for U.S.-born Pierce County households that had such income.
22.4 percent Share of Pierce County immigrant households that receive food stamp benefits.
14.4 percent Share of U.S.-born Pierce County households that receive food stamp benefits.
* This estimate has a significant margin of error, +/-$2,072.
Source: American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau
At a forum at the University of Washington Tacoma last month, Urban Studies professor Ali Modarres gave a snapshot of Pierce County’s immigrant workforce. He used data from the American Community Survey. These are some of his results.
10.47 percent Share of immigrant workers with jobs in food services.
5.56 percent Share of U.S.-born workers with jobs in food services.
7.46 percent Share of immigrant workers with jobs in cleaning services.
2.55 percent Share of U.S.-born workers with jobs in cleaning services.
6.78 percent Share of immigrant workers with jobs in construction.
6.12 percent Share of U.S.-born workers with jobs in construction.
3.9 percent Share of immigrant workers with jobs in health services.
2.6 percent Share of U.S.-born workers with jobs in health services.
5.1 percent Share of immigrant workers with jobs in medical services.
4.8 percent Share of U.S.-born workers with jobs in medical services.