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The Joys of Art

Thursday, October 19, 2006

It's been terrific for them

It hasn't been terrific for me though!!!!

Immigrant workers sending millions of dollars abroad

By Bill Walsh
Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — The large number of Latin American immigrants who flooded into South Louisiana for jobs after Hurricane Katrina are sending hundreds of millions of dollars to their loved ones back home, according to a new study.

The projected number of cash transfers — known as “remittances” — from the United States to Latin America for 2006 showed its largest increase in Louisiana, according to an Inter-American Development Bank study released Wednesday. Researchers estimated that immigrants working in the state will send $208 million to Latin America countries this year, a four-fold increase since 2004.

“Where there are jobs, there are Latin American immigrants,” Sergio Bendixon, author of the bank study, said. “The large number of jobs after Katrina made Louisiana the state with the largest growth in remittances to Latin America.”

Overall, an estimated 12 million Latin American immigrants in the United States will send $45 billion to their home countries this year, accounting for a major economic force in a perennially struggling part of the world. The average remittance has grown to $300 a month, a 50 percent increase in the past five years.

With high unemployment and low-paying jobs in their home countries, the allure of service industry and construction work paying $10 an hour or more in the United States is enough for millions of Latin Americans to leave their families and, frequently illegally, come to the United States. The Inter-American Bank study, which surveyed 2,511 immigrants by telephone in May, indicates that the vast majority — 73 percent — send a portion of their wages home.

The bank has been tracking remittances since 2000 as part of a campaign to promote investments in insurance, housing and education as a way of stimulating the economy of Latin America.

“Remittances are an important opportunity to boost development,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Bank.

Louisiana’s immigrant explosion is directly tied to the massive rebuilding after Katrina, the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. Faced with a severe worker shortage in all industries, local firms have been offering cash signing bonuses even to unskilled immigrants and paying far more than the minimum wage.

The influx of immigrants may be a financial boon for Latin America, but has put a strain on local Louisiana governments struggling to provide social services as well as school systems, which are racing to hire bilingual teachers. A housing shortage has forced many of the immigrants to seek shelter in local parks, under bridges or at truck stops. Jesus Gonzalez, pastor of Monte de los Olivos Lutheran Church in Kenner, said some homeowners allow immigrant construction workers to stay in their houses while they are rebuilding.

“Rent runs about $800 a month and they can put six people in there,” Gonzalez said.

The bank study suggests there also has been a financial upside to remittances originating in the United States. The survey found that 90 percent of the money stays behind and is invested in local communities. The study projected that immigrants would pour $2.1 billion into Louisiana’s economy in 2006.

Darlene Kattan, director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in New Orleans, said companies are signing up for membership in the hopes of tapping into what is a growing Latin American market. One of the newest members is Western Union, the firm that specializes in wire transfers.

Kattan said she was at a conference in Philadelphia recently and a Western Union official was touting his fastest-growing market: New Orleans.

“He told me the amount of money being sent (to Latin America) is tremendous,” Kattan said. “It’s so much they have joined the chamber and want to become very active. They are hiring people here. This has been really terrific for them.”

Bill Walsh can be reached at bill.walsh@newhouse.com or (202) 383-7817.

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