A crackdown in Gaineeeeesville means driving without a license can lead to deportation, so many use a 'taxista' -- or simply move away.

Carlos Santiago, 19, pays Diaz the taxi fare as he arrives at a Gainesville restaurant where he's a dishwasher and cook. He says the daily $8 round-trip expense is a big bite out of his $8.50-an-hour wages. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Carlos Santiago, 19, pays Diaz the taxi fare as he arrives at a Gainesville restaurant where he's a dishwasher and cook. He says the daily $8 round-trip expense is a big bite out of his $8.50-an-hour wages. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

August 11, 2011

Reporting from Gainesville, Ga. — Jose Luis Diaz maneuvered his big green-and-white taxi through the predawn darkness, windows shut to the crowing of roosters and the stench of the chicken plants, toward the home of Mateo, an illegal immigrant waiting to be chauffeured to work.

For Mateo -- a stocky, tattooed employee of a tree-trimming service -- the ride was no luxury. It was a necessity.

The New Latino South

The Latino population in the South has grown dramatically over the last decade. This is one in a series of occasional stories chronicling the lives of Latinos in a changing region.

Interactive: Changing Latino population in Gainesville

Photos: Robust taxi culture in rural Georgia

More in the series:

Guatemalan man with a U.S. family is threatened with deportation

Fewer hands in the fields

“Buenos días,” Diaz said as Mateo hopped into the back seat. Under a carport, a chained puppy strained in their direction.

Mateo wasn’t exactly chatty this early in the day. No matter: Diaz knew where to take him. He was a regular.

In recent years, illegal immigrants caught driving without a license in Gainesville, a city of 34,000, have found themselves on a fast track to deportation because of the county sheriff's participation in a federal immigration crackdown program known as 287(g), which lets officials check the immigration status of suspects booked into the county jail.

When the program was introduced three years ago, Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic visited Latino churches and community groups and told them the best way not to be targeted was to avoid breaking the law.

“We specifically talked about, ‘If you don’t have a driver’s license, don’t drive,’ “ Chief Deputy Jeff Strickland recalled.

They listened -- one reason for the improbably robust taxi culture here, a kind of capitalist work-around for a city that has seen its Latino population swell from 8% to 42% in the last two decades. Gainesville’s eight taxi companies, all Latino-owned, operate 177 licensed cabs. By comparison, Hinesville, a similar-size Georgia city that is 8% Latino, has four taxis.

Occasionally, the Gainesville cabs will pick up a drunk or a non-Latino; one company lists a separate “American Service Yellow Taxi” and answers its phone in English. But mostly they are in the business of offering safety and opportunity to people who crave both.

Entrepreneurs like Diaz, a 41-year-old U.S. citizen originally from Mexico, have created an odd kind of American success story: His Fiesta Cab Co., with its 31 licensed cars, is a perfectly legitimate business that serves a mostly illegitimate clientele.

Day and night, his cabs zoom past Gainesville’s churches and small factories and fast-food joints. They shuttle illegal grandmothers to supermarkets, illegal mothers and children to doctor's visits, and illegal workers to jobs, many of them in the polleras, or chicken plants, that earned this city the nickname Poultry Capital of the World.

The Wal-Mart even features a covered taxi stand, marked Parada de Taxi.

But these days, taxistas like Diaz wonder whether their boom time may be coming to an end. A sweeping new Georgia immigration law, signed in May by Gov. Nathan Deal, has sent many of their customers fleeing to other states or their home countries.

Those who remain, like Mateo, are waiting to see how their reception in this former Ku Klux Klan stronghold -- always a complex mixture of suspicion and indifference, hostility and gracious welcome -- might change as the illegal immigration crackdown intensifies across the South.

Family and friends bid farewell to those leaving Gainesville, Georgia, on the bus to the Mexico border. It's a daily occurrence for illegal immigrants who feel the pressure of Georgia's tough new immigration laws and decide to leave the country on their own. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Family and friends bid farewell to those leaving Gainesville, Georgia, on the bus to the Mexico border. It's a daily occurrence for illegal immigrants who feel the pressure of Georgia's tough new immigration laws and decide to leave the country on their own. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

After 20 years of immigration, Gainesville’s Latino presence can feel both overwhelming and tenuous. Gainesville High School is 51% Latino; its counselors offer a college resource guide for illegal immigrant students. The Longstreet Society, dedicated to the study of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, who was a Gainesville resident, offers free classes in English as a second language.

But there are almost no Latino-owned businesses on the handsome town square, arranged around a Confederate memorial that reads “Dedicated to Southern Convictions, Consecrated to Southern Valor.” The supermercados and taco stands lie south of downtown, on a motley stretch of Atlanta Highway.

Last month, an hour south of here, a federal judge in Atlanta temporarily blocked portions of the new law, including a provision giving police greater enforcement powers, and another making it a crime to knowingly transport illegal immigrants. Among other things, the law outlaws the use of fake IDs to secure employment and requires all but the smallest companies use the federal system called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires.

Residents say the simple fact of its passage appears to be thinning out the Latino population here -- though too recently to be reflected in census numbers -- along with the moribund economy and the 287(g) program, which has sent nearly 3,200 people to federal authorities for potential deportation, according to Homeland Security Department figures.

Mateo, 30, does not wish to add to that number. Like most passengers, he declined to give his last name for fear of authorities. He said he had been in Gainesville a dozen years and supports a wife and two children here.

Diaz pulled the cab in front of a darkened strip mall. From here, Mateo’s tree-trimming company was supposed to pick him up and shuttle him to his work site.

“Cuantos son?” Mateo asked. How much?

“Quatro dólares,” Diaz said -- the standard fare. Mateo handed him a five, and Diaz returned a dollar.

He didn't expect a tip. He never does. He knows these people can’t afford it.

Diaz headed off to an attractive apartment complex operated by the Paces Foundation, a nonprofit group that offers subsidized housing for the poor.

A man and woman emerged with their 9-year-old daughter. The parents had their lunches packed, the woman’s hair tucked under a plastic cap.

More regulars. No need to ask their destination. The polleras.

Wearing the factory required rubber boots, chicken processing workers arrive by taxis at the start of their morning shift. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Wearing the factory required rubber boots, chicken processing workers arrive by taxis at the start of their morning shift. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Diaz is a serious, sturdily built man with a full black beard who, on this July day, was turned out in a starched dress shirt and a creased pair of khakis. He is a former Mexican army sergeant who moved to Indiana 15 years ago, legally, lured by a brother who was already there. Diaz’s first job was in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.

Three years later, the brother had moved to booming Gainesville. Diaz went to see for himself, and what he saw was opportunity: After all, he had spent a year driving a taxi in Mexico City. Soon he was driving for a company called El Palmar. Then he launched his own company, with two cars to start.

Five of his siblings have gravitated here, part of an epochal demographic shift. Gainesville was 85% white as late as the 1980s. Some locals can remember even earlier times, when the historically black neighborhood was known, at least to some, as “Niggertown.”

Newspaper accounts from the 1980s describe Latinos complaining about police harassment. In 1989, nearly 300 Ku Klux Klan members rallied on the streets of Gainesville to protest the Latino workers who, they claimed, were taking jobs from locals.

But that same rally drew more than 1,500 counter-protesters.

Like the South more generally, Gainesville appeared to be moving away from the old defining hatreds. Some of that, said local activist Alan Shope, had to do with the fact that locals were doing pretty well for themselves.

And as the old, American-born cab company owners moved on or died out, Diaz, like other Latino owners, expanded.

The profits from Fiesta Cab Co. have allowed Diaz to purchase a suburban ranch house for his American-born wife and their three boys. It has allowed him to give alms to people like two Guatemalan sisters whose husbands were recently deported after a traffic stop.

It has helped him invest in other businesses, such as Mama Ruth's Kitchen, a down-home Southern cafe he purchased and now operates with his brothers. It offers tostadas de tinga alongside the ham biscuits.

“Well, I mean, each restaurant you go into in Gainesville -- Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Roadhouse -- who do you think is cooking?” he said.

The Paces Foundation apartment complex receded in Diaz’s rearview mirror. “I lost a lot of customers from these apartments,” he said. “They just disappeared about a month ago.”

The woman with the plastic cap was named Laura, her husband Jorge Luis. Diaz stopped to let them drop off their daughter, Dayan, at a baby-sitter’s apartment.

Laura said they were illegal immigrants who had been in Gainesville for 13 years. Now they were thinking of moving on.

“We have a plan,” she said. “To go somewhere where there's less racism” -- maybe Chicago or New York.

Diaz dropped them off. A call came in on the dispatch line. “Fiesta, buenos días,” he said. “A donde?” Where to?

When the new law was signed, eight of his drivers left the state. They were all legal residents -- each taxista must file a driver’s license with the city -- but Diaz said they typically had family members who were not.

The cab company owners, meanwhile, wondered whether their drivers could be prosecuted for transporting illegal immigrants. In June, Diaz and his competitors met with Debbie Jones, the city marshal. Not to worry, she told them. She had consulted with the state police chiefs’ association.

“You don't want taxi drivers checking the legal status of people,” Jones said later. “I told them this is intended for people knowingly transporting people into the state to work -- like the coyotes.”

Jose Luis Diaz nears the end of his 13-hour workday at his cab company in Gainesville, Georgia. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Jose Luis Diaz nears the end of his 13-hour workday at his cab company in Gainesville, Georgia. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

In Diaz’s office he keeps a photo of himself posing with Jones and a few of her staffers, all white. They are good people, Diaz said, and fair. Sometimes he grills them carne asada.

But he is never without a palm-sized “black box” device, called a Glonex Driving Recorder, which makes a video record of his driving habits and stores them on a micro-SD card. Extra insurance, he said. It would allow him, for example, to prove he wasn’t speeding.

“The problem here is, if you're Latino and you're legal, you still worry,” he said.

If something happens, he added, “The police still think it's your fault.”

Diaz entered a subdivision and stopped in front of a vinyl-sided home, simple but handsome, with a generous porch.

“Nice house,” he said. It would not be the last nice one he visited today: Before the recession, he noted, Latinos here prospered, particularly the men in construction. Now, he said, many of them are back at the polleras.

A woman named Lorena emerged, attractive, in her 20s, dressed in a pink T-shirt that said “BUILT FORD TOUGH.” She was illegal, she said, and headed to her chicken plant shift. She said she worried that the law would force her to go back to Durango -- part of Mexico’s notorious Golden Triangle drug-producing region -- with her two young girls, both born in Georgia.

“Mostly, I'm worried about them,” she said. “Because Mexico is so bad.”

He dropped her between two chicken factories, Coleman Natural Foods and Prime Pak Foods, their parking lots and walkways bustling with workers in yellow rubber boots just off the night shift, and fresh hands like Lorena.

“You see, there are only Latinos,” Diaz said. “No Anglos, no Africans working here.”

Lorena handed him a five. It was almost 7 a.m. Diaz counted seven cabs here, from Uni Taxi, Taxi El Dorado, and from Fiesta.

That afternoon, Diaz spent a few hours answering the phone at his dispatch office inside his sister’s quinceanera and party supply store, Fiesta Latina, on Atlanta Highway, across the street from Mama Ruth’s.

Then it was back on the road, giving rides to Rebecca from Jalisco, who works at a tax prep office; and Eneyda, the cute 18-year-old with the Valley Girl lilt going to her job at the mall. Eventually, he picked up Felipa Costilla, his first legal resident.

She was born in Houston. She just doesn’t like to drive.

When she first moved here, she liked how Georgia felt. Black and white would wave when you walked down the road, and talk to you when you stopped.

“But here lately it’s just like Mexicans are no good, Mexicans are just here for problems,” she said. “You can feel the vibes.” In restaurants, she said, “People turn around and look at you, like, ‘What are these Mexicans doing here, eating the same food as us?’ “

Diaz collected his $4. Then he was back down Atlanta Highway, cruising past the Yuriria Supermarket, where the big bus stops on its way to the Mexican border. A family had gathered in the parking lot with a stack of large suitcases.

Diaz suspected they were leaving for good. But he was too busy to pull over and check. A couple on Catalina Drive had called for a ride to the laundromat.

Soon, four large loads of dirty clothes were being stuffed into the taxicab’s trunk.

Into the back: a newborn, strapped into a car seat.

richard.fausset@latimes.com