WOODBRIDGE, Va. Business at Pedro Vargas' store, Club Video Mexico, has slid so steeply that only eight people walked through the door one day last month.
One thing he has been selling, however, are one-way bus tickets from northern Virginia to Texas and Mexico. Soon he'll be getting his own ticket out of town seeking a friendlier and more lucrative place to do business.
"The last few months have been very, very bad for us," said Vargas, who plans to move this summer from Prince William County, about 25 miles southwest of Washington, to Utah, where he recently opened another store.
Many say Prince William's new crackdown on illegal immigrants has created an environment so unfriendly that Hispanic people are leaving the county of more than 350,000, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau was nearly 15 percent Hispanic in 2006.
The county's policy, which has drawn heated debate and national attention, directs police officers to check the immigration status of everyone they arrest. Beginning July 1, illegal immigrants also will be denied certain services, such as business licenses and mortgage and rental assistance.
"That's like a smack in the face to me," said Vargas, a 24-year-old Mexican immigrant who is living in the U.S. legally. "I've been living here my whole life, and now they pass this law?"
It is difficult to measure how many Hispanic people have left and their exact reasons for leaving. In addition to immigrants' fears over the new policy, the souring economy and mortgage crisis may be contributing to the departures. But anecdotal evidence increasingly points to a sudden cultural and economic shift in the county's Hispanic community.
Several Hispanic business owners say their sales have plummeted. Prince William school officials say enrollment in English for speakers of other languages classes fell nearly 6 percent to 12,645 students between Sept. 30 and March 31. Other northern Virginia counties had increases.
Salvador Caballero, pastor of Trono de Jehova Pentecostal Church in Woodbridge, said attendance at his Spanish services has shrunk to about 130 people from 200 in recent months. Some people, he said, have stopped coming because they're afraid to be out in public, and others have moved to other states or back to their home countries.
One family of seven packed up and went to Texas. "All they told me is they were going because they were afraid here," Caballero said. "We're losing a lot of people here in Prince William. I hope they're not going to be sorry later."
Stephen Fuller, director for the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said the policy could end up tainting the county's image and scaring off investors.
"I think this will affect the county for several years even if they reverse the policy tonight," Fuller said. "The damage has been done. It's like personal reputation; it's hard to build that back."
Supporters of the changes, however, say the crackdown is working as intended. Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart said it already has had a "tremendous positive effect on the quality of life."
County supervisors recently approved spending $2.6 million for the initiative. Prince William also has incurred higher-than-expected costs at the local jail due to overcrowding. Authorities were taking weeks to pick up suspected illegal immigrants rather than the 72 hours mandated under a partnership between the county and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. County officials were forced to pay to house inmates in other jails in the state.
A policy that went into effect in March directed police to check the residency status of anyone who is detained, no matter how minor the offense, if they believed the person might in the United States illegally. Prince William County supervisors changed the policy last month; now police check the immigration status of all suspects, but only after they are arrested.
Stewart says the change will reduce the possibility of racial-profiling accusations because everyone will now be checked.
But Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization still opposes the policy.
"This is an ordinance that through and through sends the message to police that they ought to be stopping and detaining people that speak a foreign language and appear to be from another country," he said.
Nancy Lyall, of the immigrant advocacy group Mexicans Without Borders, says she doesn't know what effect the policy change will have, but that it appears to have already damaged the Hispanic community.
"The community is still completely devastated," she said. "And for those obviously that have left, there's certainly no reason for them to go back."
At the taco restaurant Ricos Tacos Moya, business has dropped by about 50 percent, and owner Salvador Moya said he doesn't know how much longer he'll be able to hold on. He was already forced to shut the doors this year on a second, much larger location in nearby Dumfries, where the bar and dance floor drew some 200 customers each weekend.
"We don't know what we're going to do," said the Mexican native, who moved to the area 20 years ago and has worked his way up from being a dishwasher. "When the law started, business went down, down, down."