Undocumented Immigrants as Heroic Agorist Entrepreneurs

Yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

When residents of Wynscape apartments wanted phone cards to call Mexico, El Salvador or Honduras, they didn't need to leave the north DeKalb County complex: A woman sold them out of her unit.

They could buy beer, too. All it took was a knock on the door of another of the 272 apartments.

Here, where many residents don't drive and cash is king, an underground marketplace has thrived.

But two murders at the complex's unofficial convenience store — a second-story unit that offered items from batteries to lime-flavored potato chips — has shed a tragic light on the shadow economy familiar to new immigrants in Georgia.

Two young men wearing jeans and hooded sweatshirts entered the apartment on a Saturday night, pretending to be customers. They pulled out a gun, and a struggle ensued.

Shot dead were Honduran immigrant Jose Roberto Nuñez, 49, and his 14-year-old son, Daison.

They died trying to protect the side business that helped supplement Nuñez's spotty house-painting in-come. Nuñez's wife, Alejandrina Salgado, who was awakened by the commotion, found her husband and son bleeding on the kitchen floor. ...

The kitchen snack bar was robbed four more times, including once in 2006 and again a few months ago, she says. But by then, the family of seven needed the extra income more than ever, Salgado said. Painting jobs had grown scarce for her husband, who had recently joined day laborers on a nearby street corner to find work. Though Hurricane Mitch wiped out their village, prompting their move to Atlanta, the family didn't apply for the temporary legal residency offered to Hondurans displaced by the 1998 disaster.

Salgado glances up at a photo of a smiling Daison, who loved to box and spend time with his girlfriend from Sequoyah Middle School. "I don't understand the mentality," she says. "We sold a few sweets, for so little money."

Operators of unlicensed businesses are easy prey. Thieves assume they have cash on hand. There are no security cameras. And in many cases, the owners are more reluctant to call police.

It's unclear to me why the lack of a business licence is relevant here, other than for the last reason given: if lack of a license is grounds for arrest or punishment, unlicensed businesses have a disincintive to rely on government police protection. Of course, that's not an argument for cracking down on unlicensed businesses; it's an argument for cracking down on requiring business licenses in the first place.

The attacks come amid grim times within Georgia's underground economy, said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth. Roughly half of the state's nearly 1 million immigrants are estimated to be in the country illegally. And more than a few have been filling unofficial jobs in construction and landscaping, Humphreys said.

But 2007 saw a historic drought and a downturn in the home-building industry. "That's a very cruel combination for the underground economy right now," he said. "People are desperate."

Immigrants account for a small percentage of off-the-books commerce in Georgia, he said. Even so, demand for the services of a shadow market appears to be rising in increasingly isolated immigrant neighborhoods such as Wynscape. Traffic on I-85 roars past the aging brick buildings off Shallowford Road, but fewer residents are driving these days.

A new state immigration law has made it harder for illegal immigrants to obtain license plates. And some fear deportation for traffic violations.

So for many residents here, the Nuñez family store was a welcome convenience.

Manuel Morales, who no longer drives, said grocery shopping isn't easy. He sometimes walks across the I-85 overpass to a Publix. But staples from his native Mexico are a $10 cab ride away on Buford Highway.

And every evening, he keeps his eyes peeled for the box truck with two poblano chile peppers painted on the side. Jesus Morales, whose mobile fruit and vegetable stand is a licensed business, fields a flurry of calls from customers wondering what he has on board. Residents buy eggs, fresh tomatoes and paper towels. In 10 years, he says he's never been robbed. Of course, Morales' operation is legit. He keeps his business license on hand, is often surrounded by customers and wouldn't hesitate to call police.

Again, we see the perverse, unintended consequences of government intervention. Anti-immigrationists make it difficult for undocumented workers to drive legally, so we naturally see local convenience stores popping up in easy walking-distance proximity from where the immigrants live. The "legitimacy" mentioned in the preceding sentence is a distraction, a potential confusion: there is nothing more "legitimate" about Morales' licensed produce stand than Nuñez' unlicensed convenience store, other than an illegitimate piece of paper. The license requirement itself is the source of the problem here, not its solution.

Anti-illegal immigration activist D.A. King said "illegal immigration is a crime, and it breeds more crime." Police too often turn a blind eye to underground businesses in immigrant neighborhoods, he said, passing them off as part of the culture. "If law enforcement was fulfilling their duty," said King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, "maybe these two people would still be alive today."

At a laundromat across the street from Wynscape, construction worker Hector Cabrera said kitchen snack bars and mothers selling soup on the side aren't the problem.

"That's a way of survival."

The robberies and murders would wane, Cabrera said, if police took crimes in the Latino community more seriously.

D.A. King - a local figurehead for the modern incarnation of the Know Nothing Party - unsurprisingly gets his analysis exactly backwards: Making free, open, and peaceful immigration a crime is itself a crime, and it breeds more crime.

Questions to ponder: What alternatives might business owners in the shadow economy have to government police protection? Is it possible, in theory, for the market to provide sufficient protection of property rights and contract enforcement even while still enmeshed within a statist system that claims and enforces a monopoly on these services, without this private protection agency devolving into an illegitimate mafia? Is there anything we can do on the margins, in lieu of total system overhaul, to make these immigrants' lives easier and safer? Is there any way to break the state's monopoly on law enforcement through piecemeal efforts? Think of the relationship between campus police and city police. Might a similar arrangement be possible for immigrant communities?

Share this