By Sylvester Arenas
People migrating to the United States from Latin America often come alone, leaving family members behind and supporting them by sending home money.
Most frequently, this is done through remittances (remesas in Spanish) — money transfers sent wirelessly to recipients almost anywhere in the world. For many families, especially in Latin America, it is a vital form of support.
In countries like Colombia and the Dominican Republic, where jobs are often scarce and wages low, remittances put food on the tables of an extended family, help pay school fees for a child left behind or medication for an elderly parent. In the years before the most recent recession, migrants sent about 10 percent of their incomes to families back home, an amount that can equal 50-to-80 percent of the recipient’s income, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Remittances still account for more than 10 percent of the GDP of several Latin American countries.
Even during flush economic times, for the migrants themselves, sending remittances has meant a struggle to support two families — one in the U.S. and the other at home — a challenge that has become ever harder during the current recession.
Teresa Fermin, who left the Dominican Republic 15 months ago, knows what it’s like to try to sustain a family here in the Bronx while trying to help her mother who works in a hospital laundry in El Cibao in the Dominican Republic. Fermin, 50, who worked as a nurse for more than 30 years and also as a hair stylist before leaving the Dominican Republic, says she came to the United States because her 26-year-old son, who had been living here with his family for the last nine years, needed her help.
She was happy to come as she was having a hard time making ends meet at home. “People are just too poor in the Dominican Republic,” Says Fermin, who earned about $100 per week in recent years.
Getting a job in New York, however, was difficult. During her first week in New York, Fermin says she visited at least seven salons in Washington Heights, looking for a job. She even offered to work one day for free to prove that she is a good stylist. But every salon turned her down, telling her that business is slow and they could not afford to hire anyone.
Eventually, Fermin found a cleaning job with Facility Value Housekeeping, a cleaning service. Initially, Fermin worked at a YMCA on 47th Street and Third Avenue, and was recently transferred to the YMCA in Long Island City, Queens. She says she likes the work but earns only $500 every two weeks. She tried to send her mother $25 each month. But three months ago, when her 13-year-old daughter joined her in New York, Fermin had to cut back; she now sends $25 only every few months.
The recession has taken its toll on migrants and the remittances they send back home. In November, remittances to the Domincan Republic have declined 3.9 percent, according to the World Bank, since last year. Remittances to Colombia have declined 5.8 percent.
Remittances are down across Latin America. In November 2009, remittances dropped to $69.2 billion in November 2009, a record 15-percent drop from $58.8 billion a year earlier, according to the Multilateral Investment Fund, a report funded by the Inter-American Development Bank. The steep decline was skewed by Mexico, the Andean countries and Brazil, which each had double-digit declines in remittances, with Brazil’s 20-percent drop being the steepest.
Tough economic times also are changing the way migrants send their earnings home via the small financial service businesses — check-cashing businesses and travel agencies — that serve as the hub for the remittance business. For example, in Jackson Heights, Queens, at Costamar on 79th Street and at DOLEX on 76th Street, the window agents say remittances are down at least 40 percent from a year ago. Typically, these companies charge on a sliding scale, with larger sums costing relatively less to remit than smaller ones. Thus the fee for sending a remittance of, say, $75 to the Dominican Republic is $5-to-$7. But if you send, say, $200 the fee is only $10 and$12.But as remittances have declined, customers are trying to cut down on fees and find ways to stretch their hard-earned dollars. A cashier who sat behind a thick three-foot-high glass partition at DOLEX, but would not give her name, explained that business is down for two reasons, “strategic-sending” and “hand-carrying.”
The former is when a migrant saves money for several months, and sends it in one lump sum, rather than on a monthly basis, saving the $5 to $7 fee for each transmission. The “hand-carrying” method involves saving up money and then delivering it yourself on a visit home.
One regular customer who used to frequently send small amounts — $20 or $30 dollars at a time — now “rarely” comes in, says the Dolex cashier, who has worked for the company for three years. “The last time she came she sent $500,” she says.
Natasha Bajuk, who heads the Multilateral Investment Fund, said in a telephone interview that migrants, many of whom have lost work or had their pay cut, have been tapping into their savings accounts to keep up with their families’ needs. But the need is so great at home, explains Bajuk, that migrants rarely turn the tap off entirely. “Those needs don’t go away,” she explains. “It’s a very delicate balance between the income generation power of the migrant and the need on the other end.”
Today there are new online tools that help people “shop for the best service and least expensive service,” Says Bajuk, adding that a new one is about to be launched: www.envioscentroamerica.org.
The site will contain a database of fees, she says, which will include all the different remittance services in a given neighborhood. The site will also provide up-to-date currency exchange rates.
Meanwhile, as earnings shrink during the recession, migrants are saving up their remittances and delivering the money themselves during visits home. For example, Maria Alicia Martinez, a 71-year-old grandmother who could not find a job in her native Colombia and has been dividing her time between Cali, her hometown, and Greenwich, Conn. where she works as a live-in-nanny a few months a year, takes her earnings home when she returns to Cali.
Martinez earns just $50-per-week; so, it is much more economical for her to take back a single lump sum. Since she receives room and board in Greenwich, she saves most of her wages, which she uses to supplement the $350 monthly pension that her husband Alfonso Villota, a retired printer, receives. Martinez says she needs the money she earns in the U.S. to help pay the mortgage on her house and to help support three adult children and five grandchildren; she usually returns home with $350 to 400 every six months. Her employer pays Martinez’s roundtrip air fare from Cali to New York. Still a Colombian citizen, her visa permits her to stay a maximum of six months at a time and needs to be renewed after five years.
Meanwhile, migrants say that because they are able to send less money home, their relatives in Latin America are suffering. Herlinda Ospina, who works in the babysitting room at the YMCA and whose hours, and wages, have been cut by about 15 percent during the past year — has had to cut back the amount of money she sends home to her goddaughter, the 50-year-old divorced mother of four children who lives in Cali, Colombia. Instead of the $50 to $60 every two weeks that she sent in 2009, Ospino now sends only the occasional gifts of $25.
As a consequence, her goddaughter who is diabetic, and whose insulin costs $40-per-month, now eats only two meals a day: Breakfast is a small slice of bread and coffee. Dinner consists of a small portion of rice with beans, and — if she is lucky — a palm-sized piece of fried chicken or cooked ground beef.
When Ospina first cut back on her remittances, her goddaughter stopped speaking to her. They reconciled last year, but even now they rarely speak. “Se lucha, se lucha,” Says Ospina in Spanish. (“You struggle, you struggle.”)