Migrant Women Lift Remittances

Even when times were tough, immigrant Silvia Navas says she never stopped sending money to her mother in Guatemala.

“She needs the money to pay her utilities and other expenses,” says Ms. Navas, a 46-year-old facilities manager in Maryland.

Ms. Navas and women like her are a growing force in the economies of developing countries, a new study by the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based independent think tank, shows. It found that migrant women surveyed in several major U.S. cities sent money to their home countries more frequently in 2013 than men did.

The U.S. leads the world as the biggest source of remittances, much of it sent by millions of Latin Americans. The money is key to supporting families and a vital source of hard currency for developing countries, often dwarfing foreign direct investment and foreign aid.

On average, women sent money to their country of origin 13 times last year, with each remittance averaging $207, according to the study, which surveyed 2,000 immigrants in five U.S. metropolitan areas.

Men sent money 12 times, at $229 a remittance. And while men sent remittances worth about the same amount and with the same frequency in 2013 as they did in 2009, during the recession, women raised both the amount and frequency with which they sent money home over that period, the study showed.

Among the possible reasons are that migrant women tend to work in sectors such as housekeeping and other services that are less vulnerable to economic swings than typically male-dominated sectors like construction.

“I know a lot of people who lost their jobs or worked less during the recession, but I kept my job,” says Ms. Navas, who sends her mother at least $200 a month.

About half of the 21.3 million immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean in the U.S. are women. “Women are playing a more important role in remittance flows,” said Nancy Lee, general manager of the Multilateral Investment Fund, a unit of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Women migrants overall are more likely to earn more money, particularly if they are educated. About one-third of Mexican women working in the U.S. have a college degree or some higher education, and their ranks have been growing.

All told, migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean working all over the world transferred about $60 billion to developing countries in 2013, compared with $56 billion in 2009 and $65 billion in 2008, before the recession’s grip tightened.

Mexico, which accounts for about half of the total remittances, reported no increase in 2013. Salvadorans sent about $4 billion home, slightly more than in the previous year. Guatemalan expatriates’ remittances, which account for 12% of their country’s gross domestic product, jumped nearly 7%. The Inter-American Dialogue forecasts that remittances will climb 3.5% in the region this year.

Behind the lackluster remittance recovery is the fact that Ecuadorian, Paraguayan and Peruvian migrants have been hurt by the poor economies of Spain and Argentina, traditional destinations for them. Remittances to Mexico, home of most migrants in the U.S., have been adversely affected by record deportations, border violence and other factors.

Manuel Orozco, remittance scholar at the Dialogue, believes overhauling the U.S. immigration system would make remittances grow more by bringing millions of illegal workers out of the shadows, enabling them to earn higher wages. A proposed immigration overhaul to adjust their status has stalled in Congress.

In the meantime, a continued U.S. economic upturn, particularly in construction, also could increase the value of remittances sent by immigrants already here, as well as fuel new arrivals. Alma Couverthie, who oversees day-labor centers for Casa de Maryland, an immigrant organization, said there was more hiring for new construction and remodeling even through the harsh winter.

A recent spike in immigration to the U.S. from Central American countries, particularly crime-ridden Honduras and Guatemala, is likely to further boost remittances to that region. New migrants typically send more money home than those who have been away from their country a long time. “The family ties are stronger for these recent arrivals,” said Ms. Lee of the Multilateral Investment Fund.

The remittance study of migrants in the U.S. also found that about two-thirds save money. Among those who saved, half of the respondents had $4,500 or more in savings. Only 41% said they had put their savings in a bank account in the last year.

“Formal savings are associated with investments in human capital, like education, and small businesses,” said Ms. Lee, “We need to promote use of the banking system.”

Among migrants in the U.S., 46% said they didn’t hold any debt, while a third owed amounts under $2,000.

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