Tense days for business owners without legal status in US

By GISELA SALOMON and CLAUDIA TORRENS Markets Associated Press

Maribel Resendiz and her husband came to the U.S. from Mexico, sold cool drinks to workers in the tomato fields of South Florida and eventually opened a bustling shop in a strip mall offering fruit smoothies and tacos. Now she is preparing for the possibility she'll have to leave it all behind.

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Resendiz, who is not a legal U.S. resident, recently turned over control of the business in Florida City to her daughter, a citizen. The once-proud shop owner is so afraid of deportation these days that on a recent morning she was keeping out of sight of customers while her husband was not there at all.

"I am afraid the police will stop me, call immigration, and they will take me away to Mexico," Resendiz said while cutting fruit for smoothies.

The couple, who came to the United States in 1992 and have not become legal residents, are among a growing number of business owners with the same status who are scrambling to get their affairs in order amid a crackdown on illegal immigration under President Donald Trump.

As many as 10 percent of the 11 million or so immigrants in the United States without legal residency own businesses in the country by some estimates, and many are selling their enterprises, transferring them to relatives or closing altogether to avoid a total loss if they are abruptly deported.

They include people like Mauro Hernandez, a native of Mexico who operates a small chicken takeout and delivery restaurant along immigrant-heavy Roosevelt Avenue in the borough of Queens in New York City. He is now trying to sell.

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There is Carmen and Jorge Tume, a couple from Peru, who have scaled back their mobile car wash business in Miami because they are so afraid of getting stopped by police and turned over to immigration.

"We don't have any hope left," said Carmen Tume, 50. "Everything we built is coming down."

Hernandez, whose business was registered in the name of a friend who is a legal resident, said he is selling because he doesn't want his partner to get stuck with it if he is deported.

"Since Trump won I have been very nervous," he said.

It's impossible to say exactly how many are taking such measures, but Jorge Rivera, a lawyer who advises immigrant clients in California, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, Texas and other states, sees a clear trend.

"Everyone is taking precautions," Rivera said. "They don't want their business to disappear overnight and be left with nothing."

Several other business owners interviewed by The Associated Press shared similar stories on condition that their names and identifying details not be disclosed, not wanting to alert immigration authorities.

They included a 40-year-old from Mexico who runs a marketing firm in Los Angeles that he said employs 50 people and has annual revenues of about $5 million. He's making plans to transfer it to relatives who are citizens and move with his family to Spain.

Those selling often see no choice but to take a loss. Under Trump, detentions of immigrants in the country illegally rose 37 percent over the first six months of the year compared with the same period in 2016. The administration says it is focused on those with criminal records, but the number of detainees who do not have a criminal history has more than doubled.

The businesses in question range widely from one-person cleaning services to restaurants and other operations that employ dozens of people. While hard figures on this hidden part of the economy don't exist, the Washington-based Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates immigrants in the country without permission contribute $11.7 billion annually in state, local and federal taxes.

People without legal residency can obtain an individual taxpayer identification number and an employer identification number, enabling them to open bank accounts and operate businesses among other things.

Despite the boon for government coffers, advocates for controlling illegal immigration argue that the costs outweigh any benefits and that U.S. law should be enforced.

"They are trying to keep their ill-gotten gains, and the U.S. government should not allow illegal immigrants to own properties or businesses nor transfer them," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, said it's incumbent on business owners without legal residency to prepare for the worst: "If they want their business to survive, they are going to have to put a plan in place."

For Resendiz that meant handing over legal and financial control of the juice store in Florida City, which lies at the southernmost edge of Miami sprawl where strip malls fade into farms and nearby Everglades National Park produces a clientele of thirsty tourists. It has been thanks to that business the family gets by without government assistance, she said.

"I don't receive food stamps or Medicaid. ... I pay my taxes," Resendiz said. "I don't live off the government and don't ask them for anything."

She said she and her husband never tried to become citizens because they didn't feel it was necessary — until Trump was elected president. She has since applied and is awaiting a response, nervous over the possibility of having to return to a homeland she left 25 years ago and now barely knows.

"My dreams became my reality because I had my own business," she said. "Now, I have nothing in my name."

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Associated Press writer Gisela Salomon reported this story in Miami and AP writer Claudia Torrens reported from New York.

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This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of William Gheen's last name.