The growth of the Hispanic population in Horry County outpaced South Carolina as a whole and has led to new businesses, expanding services and growing diversity along the Grand Strand.
The growing immigrant population in South Carolina has also led legislators to pass and consider new laws to rid the state of illegal immigrants.
About 6.2 percent of Horry County's population is Hispanic, according to the 2010 U.S. census, up from 2.6 percent recorded in the 2000 census. And while the numbers show an increase, they don't reflect those who didn't participate in the survey out of fear of deportation.
In that 10-year period, Horry County's Hispanic population has grown from 5,057 to 16,683 people. The majority of those immigrants are of Mexican descent and are concentrated in a couple of areas - primarily the southern part of the city of Myrtle Beach and in Socastee. In those areas, Hispanics make up between 20 percent and 25 percent of the population.
"I can see more people moving here, trying to look for better jobs, better life too," said Maria Lippert, who moved to the United States with her husband about 10 years ago.
She settled with her family - she has two sons - in Horry County about five years ago because there was a better job for her husband here.
Since then she's seen many other families move to the area, growing the community that comes together to celebrate festivals and birthdays.
The growing community has led to more businesses, more authentic Mexican food and increased availability of certain Mexican products that her husband used to have to bring back from business trips.
People migrate primarily for economic, political and environmental reasons, said Jerry Mitchell, a cultural demographer at the University of South Carolina.
Economic reasons seem to be the primary driver, so the Lipperts, and many other Hispanic residents in Horry County, are fairly typical, he said.
Often certain areas experience surges in immigrant populations because of growth and because immigrants tend to establish migration chains, where they move to a place others have moved before.
Miriam Berrouet, the former president of the now defunct Latinoamericanos en Accion, a community group, said the growing population enriches the area and provides more opportunities for locals to learn about other cultures.
"Just having more of an international community, that benefits everyone," she said.
New businesses - including restaurants, grocery stores and accounting offices - have opened to respond to the needs of the growing Hispanic community.
Along Socastee Boulevard and along U.S. 501 in Myrtle Beach signs let potential customers know about Mexican grocery stores and restaurants, largely concentrated in areas where the populations are largest.
The grocery stores provide foods from home for the Hispanic community and gives locals a chance to try something new. For some being able to find the special ingredients for their mother's recipe or products they used at home, helps them feel more comfortable, several Hispanic residents said.
Merly Verduga, is a paralegal who works at Latinnet multiservicios, primarily helping the Hispanic community with legal issues.
"Hispanic businesses help a lot in the economy and gives us a lot of accessibility to go and get our own stuff for our foods," she said.
Diego Bermejo, has owned a business, People Solutions Inc., which does accounting, translation and manages properties, since 2002.
His mother was also an accountant and always wanted to own her own business, but couldn't in Argentina, where she spent most of her career working for the government.
"Here you make a goal, sacrifice and you can make your dreams," Bermejo said.
Like many businesses, the sluggish economy has taken its toll - he has about half the clients he had a few years ago - but he's holding on, he said.
He helps members of the Hispanic community with paperwork, employment and issues that arise so he's heard a lot of stories about what brought people to the area.
"People come here for a job and security," Bermejo said, adding that they often come from countries where it was not safe for them to live.
The rapid growth of the area attracted a lot of immigrants and the focus on tourism and construction provided work options for both men and women.
He helps immigrants file taxes and learn about the rules in the U.S., but said that more information should be available to immigrants about their responsibilities.
One of the reasons the growth has been focused in certain areas, especially the south end of Myrtle Beach is because the area is closer to jobs, and some immigrants don't know how to drive or can't get a license, so they need to be close to work.
The growing Hispanic and other immigrant population has resulted in increased enrollment in English as a second language programs and led to some changes in the medical community.
Horry County schools offers English as a second language classes to any student whose native language is not English. More than 30 languages are represented in those students, but about 2,500 of the 3,000 students in English as a second language classes in Horry County are native Spanish speakers, said Teal Britton, Horry County Schools spokeswoman.
"It has grown in the past 10 years but not as dramatically as what the census numbers happen to be," she said.
Elementary schools in the City of Myrtle Beach have the most students that need the services, with a significant number also at Socastee Elementary School, Britton said.
"Over the last 10 years certainly our cultural awareness [has increased] of not only Hispanics, because we have lots of people who have moved here from other countries who have added to the richness of our student body make up," she said.
Attendance at adult English as a second language classes offered through Horry County Schools has also increased in the past few years, said Jan Camp, the program facilitator.
At a recent class her students shared that many were there to learn English so they could help their children in school and better fit in with the community.
"I want to help myself to understand and my kids," said Vania Infante, 24, who came to Myrtle Beach five years ago from Mexico to live near her mom. She met and married her husband here and they're raising their family here.
As her English has improved, she's been able to help others in the community, especially parents of other students, Infante said.
Lippert is also in the English as a second language class, and just completed her GED, or high school equivalency exam. She too enrolled to help her children and to be able to communicate better with their teachers.
An expanding Hispanic population also means that hospitals and medical centers need to be able to serve those communities. About 10 years ago as the population began to expand, Grand Strand Regional Medical Center translated many of the consent and instruction forms to Spanish to better serve patients, said Joan Carroza, a spokeswoman for Grand Strand Regional Medical Center,
The hospital is required to offer translators, there are some in-house translators for general conversation but official clinical information and consent for any medical procedures is translated using the AT&T Language line. The patient and doctor will get on a special phone and have a three way conversation with a certified interpreter, as required by law.
"Over the years we have recognized the need to translate more documents into Spanish so we were meeting that need," Carroza said.
More growth unlikely
Despite the growth reflected in the census, many say that the Hispanic population was even larger a few years ago, but the economy and an S.C. law requiring employers to verify the immigration status of workers, resulted in many moving home or to states where they can still work.
As the jobs, especially in construction, disappeared some immigrants moved back home, typically women and children going first followed by the men, Bermejo said.
The economic downturn also resulted in more antipathy toward immigrants who are still here, he said.
"The problem is it's hard to be part of the [Horry County] family here," Bermejo said. "It is a bad economy and they start closing the door to foreign people."
The immigration law that required verification of an employee's immigration status and the legislation now being considered that would allow police officers to check immigration status, are of concern to some members of the Hispanic community.
Infante said she likes living in an area with other Hispanic people but is worried that law enforcement or immigration officials will focus on her community.
Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, supports the bill being considered by the Senate. He said it adds to the previous law and will help identify a broader group of illegal immigrants.
"There was a loose end there because one of the issues you look at is what we are addressing. If you eliminate the jobs there is no reason to come but what we're addressing now is ... [if] you look at the whole gambit, what about the people doing illegal things and not really working," he said.
The bill, which will likely be taken up by the Senate during a special session in a few weeks, will enhance the existing law, which will prove successful over time, Cleary said.
He said he understands why immigrants come here and added that the best solution would be for the federal government to create broad immigration laws.
"The people, they're coming to make a better life for themselves and those people are really good people: That's where our ancestors came from," Cleary said. "We just need to make sure we know who they are and they are legal."
The law the legislature is considering may further push immigrants out of the state, and Berrouet said she's concerned it will also mean that legal immigrants, or even people who look Hispanic, are targeted.
The law will likely have a significant impact on the growth of the population and many immigrants are holding their breath, Berrouet said.
"I'm not sure growth will continue. There has been an exodus and there will continue to be an exodus, however the degree and the rate at which it is happening I'm sure would increase if that law would pass here," she said.
Contact ADVA SALDINGER at 626-0317.