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July 2007, Volume 14, Number 3

Latin America: Remittances, TPS, Gangs

Remittances. The Inter-American Development Bank estimated that remittances to Latin America were $62.3 billion in 2006, up from $50 billion in 2005. Most of the remittances are from the US, but some come from Spain, Canada, Italy and other countries to which migrants move. Mexico received the most remittances, about $23 billion or three percent of GDP, in 66 million transactions, for an average remittance of $350 per transaction.

World Bank economist Humberto L¢pez estimated that remittances reduced the share of people in poverty from 28 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 2005. However, remittances increased Latin America's GDP growth rate by only 0.25 percent between 1991 and 2005. Lopez concluded that emigration may have slowed growth in the Caribbean, where up to 80 percent of university graduates have emigrated.

The Associated Press reported on May 29, 2007 that some Guatemalans are working less because they can live off remittances, which totaled $3.6 billion in 2006, over 10 percent of the country's $35 billion GDP. In some towns, remittances have led to the closure of small repair shops, as families live off remittances rather than work. One migrant who had worked in the US for ten years said that young people do not want "to work for the 1,400 quetzales ($200) that you earn in a month. And why study when someone who goes to school doesn't earn any more than that?"

An effort to create good jobs at home has failed in El Salvador. Just Garments, which received $600,000 in loans and grants to create a unionized, worker-run garment factory, went bankrupt in April 2007, leaving some workers unpaid. The factory was closed by Taiwanese-owned Tainan Enterprises after workers voted to unionize, and reopened amid hope for a new model in 2004. Poor quality and low productivity doomed the enterprise, although the plant's defenders say a conspiracy against unionized plants hastened the demise.

TPS. Central Americans began moving to the US in the 1980s, when civil wars displaced many, and over 500,000 were granted immigrant status in the 1990s as a result of court challenges to the US government's refusal to accept them as refugees.

There are about 312,000 people from Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador with temporary protected status in the US, and they have been allowed to renew their status every 18 months for almost a decade. Leaders of these countries want the US to continue renewing TPS, saying they need the $10 billion a year in remittances.

Gangs. The Washington Post on June 27, 2007 profiled Hondurans removed from the US, pointing out that half of Honduran workers have less than six years of schooling and that the minimum wage in Honduras is $3.50 a day. Remittances from the US were $2.3 billion in 2006, a third of the national income, and were expected to top $2.8 billion in 2007 before removals began surging.

Almost 25,000 Hondurans were removed from the US in 2006, and when interviewed as they return, most of those younger than 40 say they plan to try to re-enter the US illegally.

Julio Vel squez, with the Honduran National Human Rights Commission emphasizes the costs of migration. Saying "Honduras today survives on remittances, but mass migration also causes enormous damage." Vel squez added that "Those who manage to reach the U.S. can lift their families a little out of poverty, but often the families fall apart and the kids end up in gangs or on drugs."

The US deports foreigners convicted of US crimes, and has removed over 50,000 people with criminal records to Central America since 2003. The removal of gang members has strained police forces in Central America and led to extra-judicial hit squads that threaten or kill ex-gang members who are deported. Some of the gang members deported from the US have returned and applied for asylum, saying they face persecution at home because of their former gang ties.

In 2003, El Salvador and Honduras adopted Mano Dura or Iron Fist laws to deal with returned gang members. So-called "social cleansing" units operate within police departments, reportedly passing on suggested targets to death squads. Some gangs extract a war tax from local businesses and residents, so there are few local protests when gang members are killed.

A US immigration judge granted asylum to a 23 year-old Guatemalan as an ex-gang member in 2005, but the decision was reversed by the Board of Immigration Appeals. Asylum is granted to foreigners who can show a well-founded fear of persecution at the hands of governments based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has been asked to decide if former membership in a gang is "a particular social group," and whether a lesser form of protection, withholding of removal, is warranted. Several ex-gang members have been granted withholding of removal status, which allows them to stay in the US without the prospect of immigrant status, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 held that an ex-member of the MS-13 was not in a persecuted social group because he was tattooed.

Migration. Illegal immigration between Latin American nations is attracting the attention of policy-makers and researchers in the region. Government figures report that the number of Bolivians living in Argentina is 230,000 but analysts believe the real number is as high as 500,000 when illegal immigrants working as cleaning ladies and maids or on farms and in construction are included. Argentina's strong economy has made it a magnet for migrants from less developed neighbors. According to the CIA World Factbook, Argentina had a per capita income of $15,000 in 2006, while Bolivia's is $3,000.

In response to the labor shortage, a law was passed in 2003 to allow Bolivians to legalize their status in Argentina and eventually become citizens, and gave them the same rights to medical care, education and job security as Argentineans.

There is similar migration between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The largest flow of immigrants is from Colombia to Venezuela. Venezuela's 2002 census showed that 608,691 people born in Colombia lived in Venezuela. Analysts believe that the current number is higher because of continued immigration and a number of uncounted undocumented migrants. In 2004, the president of Venezuela awarded citizenship to about 500,000 undocumented migrants, perhaps half Colombians.

Dominican Republic. According to Listin Diario, 28 percent of Dominicans in the US, and 17 percent of those in Europe, are college-educated. Lack of opportunity in the Dominican Republic, worsening personal security and decreasing quality of life were cited as the main reasons for emigration.

Pamela Constable, "Deportees' Bittersweet Homecoming," Washington Post, June 27, 2007. Pamela Constable, "Many Central Americans Who Got Temporary Legal Status in the 1990s Have Been Able to Keep It," Washington Post, June 10, 2007. "Dominican brain drain," The DRI News, June 4, 2007. Sonia Nazario, "Man fights deportation by invoking his former gang ties," Los Angeles Times, June 3, 2007. Tyler Bridges, "Latin America is facing its own immigration issues," Miami Herald, May 25, 2007.