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Immigrants Send Less Money to Families in Latin America

Although economists say the United States is not technically in a recession, the slowdown in economic activity is having a dramatic impact on the amount of money immigrants are able to send back home. The so-called remittances have fallen off sharply, according to officials in several Latin American nations. VOA's Greg Flakus has more on the story from Houston.

The crowds of immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America seeking jobs has grown a little larger in Houston because of the slowdown in construction and the ripple effect in other areas of the economy. Houston is in relatively good shape compared to some other parts of the nation, having avoided a big downturn in housing because there was never a sharp increase in prices here as there was on the east and west coasts. But some of the same factors driving down the economy elsewhere are also present here.

High fuel prices, in particular, have caused some transport and construction companies to cut back. The pinch on the pocketbooks of average people has translated into less work for gardeners, house cleaners, landscapers and other unskilled or low-skilled laborers.

Oscar Ramiro, an auto mechanic from Vera Cruz, says times are hard. He says the work has gone down and at the same time the prices for such things as gasoline, food and rent have gone up. He says he used to send around $100 a week to his family back home, but now he struggles to do it every two weeks.

Juanita, a house cleaner who has lost work, says she used to send up to $150 a week to her mother in Michoacan, in central Mexico, but now she can barely manage to send $50. She says she hears similar stories from other immigrants.

Juanita says she wishes someone would do something to help the undocumented workers who are struggling to survive here. She says returning to Mexico is not an attractive option because, she says, things are even worse there.

According to the Banco de Mexico, remittances to Mexico have dropped by nearly three percent this year. Last year, immigrants in the United States sent home a record $23.9 billion, but bank officials say that figure is not likely to be matched this year.  Using data that shows all remittances sent by Mexicans living outside the country, Banco de Mexico reports that immigrants sent $5.3 billion home from January to March of this year. In the same period last year, they sent $5.5 billion.

The reduction is important because remittances are second only to oil as a source of foreign income for Mexico.

Although the price of oil has reached record levels recently, the country has not been able to take full advantage because production at Mexican wells is slowing. President Felipe Calderon has a proposal before the Mexican Congress that would allow limited participation by private companies in exploration and development so that new reserves could be opened. But leftists in the Congress have blocked discussion of the proposal saying that it is an attempt to privatize the state-owned energy sector.

The situation is similar in many other Latin American nations, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, which released a report Wednesday showing that only half of the nearly 19 million Latin American immigrants in the United States send money home on a regular basis, compared to well over 70 percent two years ago.

But the bank estimates that total remittances to the region this year will be about $500 million more than they were two years ago. What has changed, according to the report, is that there are no longer large increases in money transfers, as happened each year between the years 2000 and 2006.

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