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US-ECUADOR: Luring Migrants Home an Uphill Battle

Benedict Moran

NEW YORK, Oct 27 2009 (IPS) - Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has a Ph.D. in economics, though it may not have prepared him for the recent financial turmoil that beset his coastal country.

David Villavicencio packs boxes for his trip home to Ecuador.  Credit: Benedict Moran/IPS

David Villavicencio packs boxes for his trip home to Ecuador. Credit: Benedict Moran/IPS

Domestic capital has fled. The government has defaulted on bond payments – twice – cutting itself off from international capital markets. And foreign reserves continue to plummet as the government tries to stimulate a lagging economy afflicted by low oil prices and collapsing foreign remittances.

But the socialist president, who once extolled "the supremacy of human work over capital" to a British publication, has an unorthodox programme in his arsenal.

By the time the recession hit, Ecuador had already initiated "Bienvenidos a Casa" – or "Welcome Home". The programme, launched in August of last year, seeks to reach out to struggling Ecuadorians living abroad in an attempt to lure them back to their homeland so that they, in turn, stimulate Ecuador's economy.

"The idea is to recover that human capital," said Pablo Calle, the New York spokesperson of the Ecuadorian National Secretariat of Migrants (SENAMI), "because even if you didn't go to school here [in the U.S.] or didn't get a formal education, you still learned how to do things in a different way."

SENAMI is offering tax exemptions for imports such as furniture, professional equipment, and vehicles, and competitive grants for returned immigrants who start businesses in Ecuador. In early 2010, the programme will create a public banking system that allows immigrants to develop credit and acquire loans.

"We want to connect these people with opportunities in Ecuador so they can apply what they learned here [in the U.S.]," Calle said, speaking at his office in Corona, Queens, where the large majority New York's Ecuadorian immigrants live.

"If you don't provide people the incentives to stay permanently," he concluded, "what is going to happen is they are going to stay for a couple of months and then they'll go back."

That's exactly what David Villavicencio is thinking. The energetic 57-year-old immigrant from the coastal town of Guayaquil, Ecuador, lost his job as a hair stylist in New York's West Village a year ago. He recently decided to take up SENAMI's offer.

"I used to make 1,000 to 1,500 dollars a week," Villavicencio said, as he supervised four labourers loading boxes of clothes and an unpackaged flat-screen HDTV into a shipping container. "Now I don't even make a few hundred dollars. That's how bad it is here in the United States. It's so bad – I'm eating my shirt."

"If President Correa says, 'come home,' why should I lose this opportunity?" he asked.

Villavicencio came to Queens as a 13-year-old, and says he holds dual nationality. He plans on returning to the U.S. frequently.

"I'll save a few dollars. I'll be able to open up my own shop over there," he added, while proudly pointing to a white Honda SUV that was going with the shipment. "Plus, I'll have an easy life, because I'll be living next to the ocean. No more cold weather, no more winter."

Villavicencio, though, may be among the few returning to Ecuador from the U.S.

While it isn't clear how many people have opted into the programme, only 384 families from the U.S. returned to Ecuador between January and August 2009. That's a tiny fraction of the approximately 582,700 Ecuadorian immigrants – both legal and undocumented – who live in the U.S., according to a 2008 survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

(Globally, a total of 8,600 families have returned to Ecuador from as far away as Japan, according to SENAMI.)

Aaron Terrazaz, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, a non-profit think-tank that analyses migration trends, said that despite the worst global economy in decades and a decrease in the rate of immigration into the U.S., population data demonstrates that reverse migration has not occurred to anywhere in Latin America.

"The Ecuadorian economy is just now being impacted by the recession," he said. "Their economy has contracted for three consecutive quarters. The prospects – especially for private sector growth – are not good."

"All of that suggests that people have no reason to go back," he added.

Or, as a 2009 paper by the University of Oxford on reverse migration to Ecuador stated, "the potential opportunities inherent in staying overseas exceed the perceived benefits of return".

Indeed, the World Bank recently estimated that an additional 10 million people in Latin America will fall into poverty as a result of this year's recession, reversing gains that were made in the past decade.

Luis Apuango, a 42-year-old immigrant, carried a large tray of greasy, black-fried chicken to the back of his brother's Ecuadorian-Italian restaurant in Queens. He is one of the many that will remain in the U.S.

"There are lots of problems in Ecuador – it's hard to go back," he said, when asked if he would return. "I have my house and my family here, and the living is better."

Villavicencio, though, standing near his shipping container and planning a return, remained excited for a new life. "I can always come back," he said.

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