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Debt Ceiling Crisis Worries Immigrants

  • Adam Phillips

A government shutdown that dragged on for weeks, political bickering, and uncertainty over the nation's financial stability have alarmed many immigrants living in the United States.

The government shutdown came as a shock to many clients at African Services Committee, a Harlem-based nonprofit organization that offers health services along with social and legal assistance to the African diaspora in New York. Attorney Claire R. Thomas often represents African immigrants seeking asylum from political chaos in their home countries.

“The idea that there is this debt crisis, that everything could blow up is really unsettling, and really scary for them that the same thing that’s been happening in their country is going to happen here to this great power, the United States, and just shock that this could happen here as well,” said Thomas.

The toxic political atmosphere in Washington affected Thomas’ clients in other ways as well. The shutdown meant the cancellation or postponement of many asylum hearings, and some lawmakers continue to threaten to curtail many federal benefits for the poor.

“Federal benefits right now… are being drastically cut. So you have that whole uncertainty over ‘I don’t know when my check is going to come. ‘I don’t know how I am going to pay my rent. ‘I don’t know how I am going to survive,’” explained Thomas.

Finances are also a major issue for millions of immigrants who send money to families back in their home countries, according to Matiusko Florentino, whose storefront business specializes in international person-to-person money transfers.
Florentino says that if America were to default on its financial commitments, its economy would spiral downwards and the dollar would decline in value, which would hurt many immigrants' families back home.

“The result could be catastrophic. If the United States doesn’t do good, the rest of Latin America will not do good. People back in, especially the [Dominican Republic], where I’m from, depend on how good their relatives do in America and the strength of the dollar. People sustain their family from the money they bring back home. And if nothing happens, people don’t have nothing to eat. I hope all the problems can get solved, so the economy can get back to the right path,” said Florentino.

Savneet Singh, an employee of GBI, an international precious metals firm based in New York, says uncertainty over the U.S. economy and global financial markets boosted interest in acquiring gold, especially among Indian- and Chinese-Americans.

“In emerging markets where you’ve had everything from bombs dropped to governments collapsing to high inflation, the concept of owning something hard and real is ingrained into their culture. So I can say, ‘Hey, I love Google stock or Microsoft stock or Exxon stock’ now. But will I bet that it will still exist in 300 years? Maybe. But will I bet that gold will still exist? I am pretty sure I can bet on that. So the idea is just to have something you know will keep its value and protect you in bouts of extreme inflation or bad governance,” explained Singh.

Singh also said Americans are increasing their gold purchases because gold is seen as a safe place to keep money in troubled times.

While political bickering in Washington worries immigrants, economists say it also unnerves investors, companies and ordinary consumers who are less likely to spend or invest, which can further slow economic growth.