María Pérez, 85, stood behind the counter at her clothing store on Milpas Street on a recent weekend, as she has for 35 years, and waited for customers who did not come.
“See how quiet it is?” she said. “Lots of working people came before to get a pair of boots or a pair of socks, but not anymore. They’re very afraid.”
A few doors down, Lucy Zamudio, the owner of Lucy’s Boutique, said sales had dropped by more than half since the November election, along with party rentals. No one is throwing parties anymore, she said. Zamudio said she had laid off an employee and was not sure how much longer she could keep her store open.
“People are afraid to spend the little they have because they don’t know what awaits them,” Zamudio said. “It’s so sad. I never imagined there would be so much racism in this country.”
Business is sharply down at Latino-owned mom-and-pops on the South Coast – hair salons, auto shops, restaurants, clothing stores with Mexican imports, jewelry stores, herbal pharmacies, travel agencies, income tax services and even arts and crafts stalls. Their owners place the blame squarely on President Donald J. Trump and his efforts to speed up and expand the deportation of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
“This man scares everybody,” said Pérez, a Bernie Sanders supporter who owns the building where her store, Centro Musical, is located. “He’s not my President. He’s a devil and a crazy man. I love this country because it gave me the opportunity to study, to learn, to work and to be free. This man is destroying everything.”
In heavily Latino neighborhoods throughout the South Coast, and especially on Santa Barbara’s Eastside and Westside, a number of business owners are in shock, having lost half their clientele or more in the space of a few months.
Some of their customers are afraid to leave their homes, whether walking or driving, the owners say. Others venture out to shop after dark. Many are saving their money in case they are deported. And it’s not only the undocumented who are fearful, they say.
“Some people don’t want to go out on the street because they’re afraid they’ll be questioned, whether they’re legal or not,” said Raúl Gil, owner of the El Zarape restaurant on San Andres Street and a director of the Santa Barbara Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “And if they do go out, they’re watching to see who’s on the street and what cars are passing by.”
About one in 10 residents of Santa Barbara County is undocumented – the same ratio as in Los Angeles County, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by CAUSE, an immigrant rights group on the Central Coast.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has said it doesn’t conduct sweeps, checkpoints or raids that “target aliens indiscriminately.” Around Feb. 6, during one of its periodic enforcement operations targeting immigrants who are deemed “public safety threats,” agents arrested five North County residents out of 680 across the country. Nationwide, their offenses ranged from domestic violence and sexual assault to drunk driving and returning to the U.S. after being deported.
The Santa Barbara Police Department and county Sheriff’s Department have repeatedly said they will not turn over undocumented residents to immigration agents unless they pose a serious threat to public safety. To help quell rumors, CAUSE is urging immigrants to text ALERT to 24587 for reliable information on ICE actions in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Immigration Hope and IMPORTA, local advocacy groups, are offering free weekly workshops in Santa Barbara to educate residents about their rights and help them prepare a family plan in case of deportation. The next workshop is at the Franklin Elementary School cafeteria from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday (March 19).
Meanwhile, the Latino mom-and-pop store owners say they are regularly fielding calls from customers, asking if they have seen a white ICE van in the vicinity.
“Just thinking about all this makes me nervous, and I was born here,” said Marisol Jacinto, the owner of Jami’s Hair Studio around the corner from El Zarape on Santa Barbara’s Westside. Jacinto said she was working more hours daily in case a client walked in. She was keeping her six-year-old daughter with her instead of going home together. Only a couple of months ago, Jacinto said, she had 10 clients per day, and now she’s lucky if four show up.
On Milpas, the downtown of Santa Barbara’s Eastside, Armando Vargas, an income tax preparer and insurance broker, doesn’t know how long he can keep paying his $1,500 monthly rent or his assistant’s wages with so few customers. This is the time of year when he usually helps 100 clients per week with their tax forms, Vargas said, yet only 40 are coming in. Most of his clients are undocumented, he said, but they are required to pay taxes under an identification number issued to them by the Internal Revenue Service. Have they gone into hiding? Vargas has no idea.
“Look, there’s nobody, when generally there are a lot of people,” he said, gesturing at the rows of empty chairs. “We have seen incredible losses that we haven’t seen in other years, and we’re just at the beginning of all this. It’s affecting legal and non-legal residents and even citizens. Nobody wins. We all lose.”
Down the street at Alvarez Automotive Repair & Smog, Gaspar Alvarez said he has lost 30 percent of his customers because they are reluctant to spend hundreds of dollars on car repairs right now.
“I don’t approve of hardly anything our President is doing,” Alvarez said. “I don’t think he’s all there. He’s not capable of handling our nation.”
At Kuki’s Beauty Salon on Milpas, Kuki Cárdenas said half her customers had disappeared. The salon is open until 7 p.m., and a few are coming at twilight because they feel safer in the dark, Cárdenas said. The salon used to be a popular place for friends and neighbors to hang out and chat, but no more, she said.
Across the street at Omar’s Travel, owner Juan Morales Mancebo said that even some of his customers who are legal U.S. residents with green cards are afraid to fly within the U.S. Irrational as it may sound, he said, they fear their green cards will be cancelled at the airport.
“It’s a reign of terror people are feeling,” Morales Mancebo said. “It’s very sad, what we’re going through.”
Julio López, the owner of Julio’s Business Services on Milpas, said he had recently notarized power of attorney forms for 10 customers, undocumented parents who wanted to name a friend or family member to take care of their children, who are American citizens, should they be deported. López said his income tax preparation business was suffering. He was proud to be a citizen of this country, he said, showing his business card with the American flag on it. But Trump’s policies, López said, are “an abuse of power.”
On Thursday afternoons in Carpinteria, Elena Hernández has watched the arts-and-crafts stalls next to the Farmers Market vanish one by one as business has dwindled. Normally, Hernández said, her stall with piles of hand-embroidered, smocked and crocheted dresses is a mecca for mothers and daughters of all ages. Some still come by to admire her handiwork, she said, but sales have plummeted from as much as $300 in a single afternoon a few months ago to $40 now.
“Hispanic families are not buying,” said Hernández, who used to have a store in Santa Barbara, and before that, cleaned houses for 18 years. “It happened like magic after the election. It’s affecting them, and it’s affecting me.”
On a recent Thursday, a pregnant woman and her mother approached Hernández’ stall and exclaimed over the tiny dresses, each fancifully embroidered with ducks or bees or whales, and each with bloomers and a headband. The young woman lovingly fingered a $25 salmon-colored set and said, “I think I would like this one.” But her mother intervened.
“No, my daughter,” she said. “Not with all that’s happening right now.”
In Santa Barbara, one Latina store owner, a former nursing assistant, declined to give her name and requested that her business remain anonymous, saying that she and most of her customers were undocumented. She said sales had dropped from $400 per day a couple of months ago to $55 per day now.
“Donald Trump is selling out this country,” the owner said. “He’s treating us like criminals. We don’t deserve this. We shouldn’t hold marches, we should stop paying taxes for a year.”
During many years working with elderly patients in Santa Barbara, she said, “What I learned is that when you are near death, we are all the same. I swear, the person who closes Donald Trump’s eyes is going to be a Mexican.”