In sour economy, local immigrants sending fewer remittances to relatives back home
Story and photos by Tyler Sipe
The tradition of sending funds back home, called remittances, is a longstanding tradition among immigrants living abroad in the U.S. – including in Fremont.
However, faced with a domestic and global economic downturn, foreign-born immigrants have been forced to tighten their wallets and decrease the amount of money they send back to friends and family in their native countries.
Fremont resident Carmen Garcia, 49, works full-time as a house cleaner. Up until recently, she depended on supplemental income earned at a second job at a local banquet hall where she assisted with wedding celebrations and parties.
Garcia said last year she sent about $500 a month to her son Ramon Garcia, 25, who lives in Tepic, Mexico. Now, she sends about $300 a month, which Ramon uses for rent, food and school.
“There’s been little business, little work for me,” Garcia said. “So less and less money for my son.”
The economic crisis in the U.S. has hit Mexico particularly hard, a country where remittances drive consumer spending and make up the second-largest source of foreign income, after oil exports, according to the Bank of Mexico. In 2007 alone, expatriates sent more than $24 billion back home to friends and family in Mexico.
On Oct. 1, the Bank of Mexico said remittances dropped to their lowest level in 13 years, falling from 1.76 billion in January 2007 to $1.65 billion in January of this year, as cited by the Dallas Morning News.
A few days after that report was released, Leslie Corona thumbed through the pages of a Latina Magazine at Ramirez Market in Fremont’s Centerville District, where she is manager.
Corona said foot traffic at the four-year-old store, which sells Mexican specialty products, have slowed considerably. The store also provides remittance services; Corona said money transfers have declined about 35 percent from this time last year.
“It hurts us a lot,” Corona said. “Everywhere it’s bad, everybody’s suffering.”
Corona said anecdotally, many Ramirez Market customers have lost their jobs in the service industry like car washes, landscaping, construction and painting. She said others have lost their homes in the subprime mortgage crisis. And even a few, with no prospects of work, have returned to Mexico.
However, not all countries are seeing decreases in the flow of remittances.
In Pakistan, remittances grew by more than $117 million between 2007 and 2008, according to the State Bank of Pakistan and reported in the Pakistan newspaper The Nation.
Expatriates living in the U.S. accounted for about $151.45 million of the total remittances in July and August this year, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.
However, there is no new data taking into account the recent global implosion of the financial sector, which has affected the amount of money Fremont restaurant owner and Pakistani native C.H. Saleem sends back to his siblings living in Lahore.
“I have to support my family here and support family back in Pakistan,” said Saleem, who co-owns the Indian and Pakistani cuisine Bismillah Restaurant in the Centerville Business District. “They’re (relatives in Pakistan) not getting enough stuff, enough food.”
Saleem said business at the restaurant has dropped 40 percent since the same time last year; he’s had to cut two lunchtime employees.
As a result, Saleem has reduced how much money he sends to family back home in Pakistan from about $500 a month to about $200 a month.
“It’s been a struggle lately, and the pressures on me are high,” said Saleem, gazing at his empty restaurant at lunchtime.
“In the Philippines, it’s really bad,” said Mitchie DeCastro, a customer relations assistant at the Philippine National Bank in Fremont. She was busy assisting a small line of customers waiting to transfer funds to relatives in the Philippines.
DeCastro estimates the PNB Union City branch office has seen a 20 percent decrease in remittance transfers since 2006.
“A lot of people rely on money from their relatives, and it will probably get worse for them.”
Despite the two-year slowdown of customers at the Union City PNB, remittances overall to the Philippines increased by more than 14 percent in the first five months of 2008, compared to the same time in 2007, according to the Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines.
However, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration contributes the remittance increase to a 39.5 percent rise in the number of Filipinos employed globally.
Outside of the PNB, Danny Galang, 59, said he hasn’t decreased the amount of money he sends to friends and family in the Philippines, which he estimates to be around $8,000 annually.
“I want to send less, but I can’t,” said Galang, who works for the city of Hayward. “We’re kind of obligated to help out relatives and friends.
“My priorities are reset. There is less money coming in from work so I don’t go to the movies now, but I still send (money) to the Philippines.”
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