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US Financial Crisis Slows Immigrant Workers' Remittances


Months of slowdown in the U.S. economy already have reduced the amount of money immigrants and foreign workers in the United States send to family in their home countries. Add to that the recent weeks of financial crisis that have shaken the international banking system. From VOA's New York bureau, Mona Ghuneim talks to some of the immigrants feeling the pinch from Wall Street's woes.

Official figures show migrant remittances are down worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which studies Latin American and Caribbean economies, reported in March that the amount of money sent home by millions of Latin Americans working abroad grew at the slowest rate last year in nearly a decade. Partly attributing this to the economic downturn in the U.S., the IDB reported that remittances to Brazil fell by four percent, while those to Mexico grew by only one percent.

The total amount of money sent home last year by Latin Americans worldwide was still huge, about $66.5 billion, but many analysts and experts are concerned about the future outlook.

Economist Walter Kemmsies says the decline in remittances from the United States, particularly to Mexico, makes sense. More than 20 percent of Mexican migrants work in the construction industry. "I suspect that a lot of the workers in the construction industry were illegal aliens, and as the industry slowed down, they [employers] originally just got rid of the workers who were of temporary status. That would explain a big chunk of the decline," he said.

Kemmsies, chief economist at the infrastructure engineering firm Moffatt and Nichol, says economic hardships, as well as increased immigration enforcement, are contributing to the decline in remittances from the United States.

Diana Rosario, a legal immigrant who came to the United States 12 years ago from the Dominican Republic, has always sent money and other necessities back to her family. But since losing her job recently at an education staffing firm, she is finding it harder and harder to support herself, much less send funds home. "I send everything that is possible to send to my poor family in the Dominican Republic. Whatever I collect from anywhere, I save it and I send it. And I usually send $200 every month, but now, with the economy down, I cut it down to half," he said.

Many immigrants in the New York area say they have had to tighten their belts recently. One such immigrant is Albanian Sejdi Husenaj, who says he has been particularly affected by the housing market crisis. As the manager of a real estate company, Husenaj says these are the worst economic times he has seen in the U.S. in 40 years living here.

"We've had to cut down on supporting our families by 50 percent, at least. It's not easy lately, because I have a father and stepmother in Kosovo [whom] I've been supporting for the past 30 years, and I have a brother, his wife and two of his children in Albania I've been supporting for the past four years."

Kabir Syed, who works for an insurance services firm in New York, does not send money back to India on a regular basis. However, he says he has been saving for a rainy day, like many other Indians living in the United States. Syed says he does not think the Indian community here will be as heavily hit as other immigrant groups.

Of all migrant workers around the world, Indians send the largest amounts of money home. "Most Indians save a lot traditionally, and they send a certain amount [abroad], so it's not going to be a huge impact on the renumeration, because they do it on a monthly basis. So it's not going to impact severely like it happens in the Mexican immigrant community, because those are mostly hourly or construction workers, so they are really hit very hard," Syed said.

Economist Kemmsies says more and more New Yorkers will soon feel the effects of the bankruptcies, mergers and consolidations rippling through the financial sector, particularly the many immigrants who work in service industries.

"The people who work on Wall Street spend a lot on services. They're the ones who use the dry cleaning services, they go out and eat and enjoy the many restaurants in the city. They spend a lot of money on entertainment. So as their spending really declines, then all of these other industries that are dependent on Wall Street - the supporting industries - they all have to take a hit," he said.

Global remittances from foreign workers make up an estimated $300 billion a year, three times as much as the foreign aid paid out by governments in the developed world. The biggest share of this, over $42 billion, comes from immigrants working in the United States.

As big as those sums are, Kemmsies says, they are probably underestimated, since quite a few foreign workers send banknotes back to their home countries by mail. Those envelopes may become thinner and thinner in the coming months.

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