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ECONOMY: U.S. Woes, Anti-Immigrant Moves Hit Latin America

Abid Aslam

WASHINGTON, May 13 2008 (IPS) - Economic woes and hostility against immigrants in the United States are having a financial impact thousands of miles away, in the communities to which migrant workers send their hard-earned savings.

In particular, fewer Latin American immigrants are sending money to their homelands on a regular basis, the Inter-American Development Bank's Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) has found.

Migrants polled by the Washington-based institution blamed the drop in remittances on the U.S. economic slowdown and hostility against immigrants, which often resurges during an election year and this time also is being fanned by an ailing economy described by growing numbers of economists as in recession.

Only half of Latin American adults living in the United States continue to send money on a regular basis to their families in their countries of origin, the MIF found, down from 73 percent when it last polled migrant workers in 2006.

"Starting in 2000, remittances from the United States to Latin America grew steadily as more immigrants sent more money more often to their relatives back home. During the past several months, however, this pattern has changed dramatically," said Donald Terry, the MIF general manager.

"If the current trend holds over the next year, we would expect millions of families throughout Latin America who until recently had been receiving remittances to fall below the poverty line," Terry said.

Remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean surpassed 60 billion dollars in 2006, with about three-fourths of this coming from workers in the United States, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. This money exceeded foreign direct investment and official aid combined and, in six of the region's countries, accounted for more than 10 percent of national income.

At least for now, the MIF anticipates no appreciable drop in the overall volume of remittances from the United States because those who continue to make remittances appear to be doing so more frequently or in larger amounts, according to the survey. As a result, this year's remittances should hold steady at around 45.9 billion dollars.

Even if this best-case scenario prevails, the MIF said, millions of immigrants are not sending money home regularly and this will result in economic hardship for millions of households in Latin American countries where remittances are a key source of income.

Asked why they could not keep up their remittances, 81 percent of immigrants polled said it is more difficult to find better-paying jobs now than one year ago. Forty percent said they are making less money than in 2007.

More than two-thirds – 68 percent – said discrimination against immigrants is proving a major concern. By contrast, only 37 percent said so in a 2001 MIF survey, said pollster Sergio Bendixen.

"The survey clearly indicates that millions of Latin American immigrants are now fearful about their futures in the United States and no longer feel that they can afford to send remittances to their families," said Bendixen, who has conducted polls for the MIF since 2000.

The findings come amid an apparent resurgence in anti-immigrant sentiment.

Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest U.S.-based Hispanic advocacy group, told reporters here that candidates are stirring up xenophobia in a divide-and-conquer bid to win congressional, state, and local elections come November.

More than 1,400 initiatives targeting immigrants have been introduced at state and local levels in the last year, compared to 1,300 in the past 10 years, Murguia said in a recent speech.

Hate crimes against Latin Americans have risen by 35 percent over the past four years, she added, citing government statistics.

Recent months also have seen a surge in raids led by the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and targeting undocumented immigrants.

On Monday, ICE agents said they arrested more than 300 workers at a meat processing plant in Iowa, in what a federal prosecutor described as the largest operation of its type in the state's history.

Most such raids have targeted businesses that depend on Latin Americans willing to perform relatively unskilled, low-wage tasks. However, parents and officials in municipalities across the country also have voiced alarm at the presence of armed agents at primary and secondary schools.

According to a report from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), the federal government reported 4,739 new immigration prosecutions in January, up 21.6 percent from the previous month and 32.7 percent over January 2007.

Law enforcement officials say the raids are aimed at netting illegal migrants convicted or suspected of immigration violations, document fraud, identity theft, or other crimes. Community groups counter that raids appear speculative and that many of those arrested have turned out to be innocent victims of mistaken identity or have had to be released for various reasons – although not before being photographed, fingerprinted, and interviewed.

The MIF, which promotes small business development in Latin America and the Caribbean, has studied the economic impact of overseas remittances since 2000. For its latest poll, it canvassed 5,000 Latin American adults living in the 50 U.S. states and Washington, DC. It said the telephone survey, conducted in February and released this month, has a margin of error of 1.4 percent.

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