Central Americans fear end of vital US dollar lifeline

Saturday, March 18, 2017

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INTIPUCA, El Salvador (AFP) — Families across Central America are living in fear that US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies will stem the vital flow of money sent home by migrants each year.

The concern is that relatives who have emigrated without authorisation will be deported, suddenly ending the billions of US dollars in annual remittances sent to their impoverished countries.


There are millions of Central Americans living legally in the United States — but also 1.7 million unauthorised migrants from the region, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center.


Most of them come from the poorest, gang-ridden three countries known as the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.


Intipuca, a town south of El Salvador’s capital, symbolises the life-changing value of the US dollars sent back home.


The town features big, coloured houses adorned with iron-forged moldings that stand empty. Their owners live in the United States, and return only for special occasions like Christmas, weddings and family events.


In the park in front of the town hall there is a statue dedicated to Sigifrido Chavez, who in 1967 became the first local to migrate to the United States.


Near the statue Jose Corpeno paces around as he speaks into a cellphone. He explains that he was talking with his daughter, who has been living in the US state of Maryland for a year and now "is living a nightmare".


"We are so worried. Immigration agents went to a place close to where she lives," Corpeno said.


The daughter paid a smuggler US$10,000 to lead her up north, and now she is living without authorisation in the United States.


"She’s working. But she’s afraid that at any moment she could be found out and detained," Corpeno said. The money the woman sends goes to a small plot of corn that her family depends on to survive.


"If she ends up being deported, then we’ll be in a bad way. We are poor, and the money she sends helps us," Corpeno said.




UNFAIR


The same anxiety is felt in Guatemala.


Victoria Flores, 70, said she relies on her 50-year-old son Estuardo, who works as a dental technician in Los Angeles and whose remittances pay the mortgage, electricity, water and telephone service where she lived.


"This is a difficult situation, with worries every day because this president (Trump) has said that he will deport all the illegals from the United States," Flores told
AFP.


The small woman called that policy "unfair". But she also lays part of the blame on Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, for overseeing changes in US migration law.


Remittances make up a significant chunk of the economy in the Northern Triangle countries, so any decline would be felt immediatly.




A BIG IMPACT


"Ninety per cent of remittances go to consumption, and any decline will impact consumption and tax income," said Mauricio Diaz, a coordinator in FOSDEH, a non-governmental Honduran body that monitors the country’s external debt and development.


In Honduras, remittances received amounted to US$3.9 billion last year. In El Salvador, it was US$4.6 billion, or 16 per cent of gross domestic product.


Guatemala, the most populous country in Central America, received more: US$7.1 billion in 2016 – an amount nearly as big as the $10 billion it makes in exports.


[In Jamaica remittances amounted to about US$2.3 billion in 2015.]


US aid, to try to stem the violence and poverty in those countries, was increased at the end of Obama’s term but has so far had little effect.


Trump’s Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly visited Guatemala in February to say that, while citizens should not try to illegally enter the United States, there would be no mass deportations.


But the situation on the ground appears to contradict that. Kelly’s department has issued internal memos setting out guidelines to boost arrests and accelerate the expulsion of undocumented immigrants.


Official figures for 2016 show that the United States deported 21,500 Salvadorans, the same number of Hondurans and 35,500 Guatemalans.


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