Moises Avila was alone in the office, staring at the screen of his desktop computer. A Spanish-language game show blared from the TV. February usually is a bonanza month for the America Travel Agency, the business Avila runs at the corner of Whittier and LaVerne in East Los Angeles. Holy Week is in April, and most of Avila’s customers have family ties in Mexico, where the seven days between Palm Sunday and Easter are set aside like a spring break — the busiest travel time of the year.
It's customary to make travel arrangements right about now. But not this year, Avila says. Sales at America Travel are down 60 percent. By 3 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, he hadn’t had a single customer.
“It's because of the president," Avila says. "The measures he’s taking is causing people to hold onto their money.”
The effects of the travel ban go further than the travelers from the seven Muslim countries on the list, Avila says. Mexicans from East L.A. who hold green cards don’t want to travel outside the United States, he says, because they’re afraid they won’t be allowed back in.
Avila has heard from customers who were detained at LAX for several hours since the ban went into effect on Jan. 27. In one case, border patrol officers held a married couple in detention for 10 hours — both legal permanent residents of the United States born in Mexico — while border patrol officers investigated the husband over a 15-year-old DUI charge on his record, according to Avila. He says other Mexican-born clients of his were held for six or seven hours.
The travel ban and last week's sweep of arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are sowing panic in the majority-Latino neighborhoods and cities of L.A. Avila says he has received dozens of phone calls about the lengthy background checks at the airport. Green card holders ask if they will be sent back to Mexico. People who don’t have papers ask if it is safe to drive family members to the airport.
“People don’t want to travel,” Avila says. “If it continues, we’ll be in the red.”
The problem isn’t limited to East L.A. America Travel is part of a consortium of L.A. travel agencies in areas such as Huntington Park, which book packages to cities in Mexico. Sales are down across the board; Avila says flights on airlines like Aeromexico are departing LAX less than half full, and the airlines are offering the lowest fares in years.
He turns around the monitor of his computer to show his point.
An Aeromexico flight scheduled to depart LAX for Guadalajara on Saturday night has 136 of 144 seats still available. Another flight, scheduled to depart an hour later, has 126 seats vacant.
“It isn’t only the travel agencies,” Avila says. “Every business owner on Whittier Boulevard has the same complaints. We’re all suffering.”
Several employees and owners of businesses on the busy shopping corridor confirmed that the area has been suffering economically since Trump won the November election. They say the size of Saturday afternoon crowds has noticeably diminished, and that stores are closing earlier than usual.
Yesenia Duran, an employee at a clothing outlet at the corner of Ferris and Whittier, was standing outside the store, waiting for any customer. She says business isn’t half what it was back in October.
“You see how it is,” she says, pointing toward the only pedestrian in sight, a block away. “It’s practically dead out here. There’s hardly anyone on the street. It’s been like this for weeks.”
It was Thursday, the day of the planned national boycott billed as “A Day Without Immigrants,” meaning it was even slower than usual. About one in 10 of the storefronts on Whittier were closed. Duran and others say the stores were closed in observance of the boycott, though none had signs posted on the storefront security gates.
Francisco Figueroa, a tailor at a shop at Whittier and Kern, was steam-ironing a pair of men’s slacks in the open storefront. A radio in the shop was tuned to an AM station playing old mambo and salsa music. “There’s no business,” he says. “The street is empty, thanks to old man Trump.”
Figueroa says he heard someone say Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are driving around on Atlantic Boulevard. Last week, ICE made 161 mostly targeted arrests in L.A., including some in East L.A., though the exact number there is unknown. Moreover, rumors of immigration raids have been running rampant in East L.A., and on Facebook. “Trump’s probably going around in the patrol car with them,” Figueroa says, without looking up from his ironing.
Beti Cobarrubia, a cashier at a bakery at Arizona and Whittier, stood at the register, waiting for the next customer. She says sales have fallen by about half since December.
“People don’t want to spend much because what if we’re taken away,” she says. “You never know when or how it might happen. It’s affecting the economy all around here.”
The proprietor of a clothing table inside a swap meet on Whittier, who declined to give his name, says he learned of the boycott in the morning while he was checking his phone. His neighbors in the swap meet were closed, and he said he was going to close up early as well.
Isaias García, an elderly man in a straw hat, was selling belts from a shopping cart he pushed down the sidewalk. He says he hasn’t sold a belt in six days, and that a few ice cream vendors he knows have left L.A. “There’s nothing going on,” he says. “Many people are afraid of what’s happening with the president. It’s better for them to stay home.”
Garcia says that to make ends meet, he began collecting cans and bottles off the street. He carries them in a plastic bag tied to the side of his cart. A recycler at Olympic and Arizona pays $1.70 per kilo of cans and 5 cents a bottle, he says.
Three miles west of the shopping corridor on Whittier Boulevard, a group of about 30 protesters gathered in Boyle Heights' Mariachi Plaza. They were chanting “Education not deportation!” and several held up a large banner that said “Stop Trump, Legalization Not Deportation.”
Several cars at the corner of Bailey and First streets honked in support. Some drivers shouted words of support out car windows. A little boy on a dirt bike shouted a profanity about Trump. An old man using a walker on the sidewalk stopped and shouted in Spanish, in the direction of protesters, “Down with Trump!”
Elena Guerra, 76, of Montebello was one of the protesters. Guerra wore her white hair tied back and carried a handmade sign with the slogan “Legalización Para Todos.”
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Guerra immigrated from Mexico City 17 years ago, and she works as a trimmer at a garment factory in the Fashion District. She says she spoke with the boss and asked him to shut the factory doors for the boycott. He gave her and the other employees the day off.
“The president has humiliated us, but our pride lifts us back up,” she says. “I want to stand up for my compañeros and for everyone. We must unite because we’re all immigrants, and in unity there is strength."