July 10, 2008

Flow of money slows to Mexico

Struggling Valley workers have less to send back to relatives.

Bee Staff And News Services
07/10/08 23:20

The sluggish economy has crimped the economic lifeline that connects the Valley's large Hispanic population with relatives abroad, with cash-strapped workers here wiring money to family less often.

Many low-paid farm and construction workers, struggling to find steady Next door, Nancy Nava, assistant manager at Jalisco Jewelers, said the typical remittance by a customer has stayed about the same -- $100 to $200 -- but instead of wiring cash once a week, many are doing it once a month instead. work amid a drought and housing bust, are using what little cash they have for basics: food, bills, rent. With rising prices for gas and food, that can mean less for relatives back home.

The result is evident in businesses that offer money-transfer services.

"I have seen a big drop from last year," said Lupita Padilla de Alba, president of De Alba Travel and Services in downtown Fresno. "A lot of people are losing their jobs, or their hours are being cut."

Nancy Nava, assistant manager of Jalisco Jewelers, said that instead of wiring cash once a week, many customers are doing it once a month.

Remittances to Mexico hit $23.7 billion in 2006, more than double the sum reported in 2002, according to Mexico's central bank. They are the country's second-largest source of foreign income behind oil sales.

But after years of double-digit increases, the cash sent back home dropped 2.9% in the first quarter of this year compared to 2007. The Bank of Mexico, which tracks the international transfers, predicts that remittances for the full year will decrease by 1.5% from 2007. That would be the first annual decrease since modern recordkeeping began in 1995.

In California -- a major source of remittances -- the sum wired to Latin America also has leveled out, according to surveys conducted by Bendixen & Associates, a public opinion research, management and consulting firm in Miami. Remittances from the state had risen from $9.6 million in 2004 to $13.2 million, according to a survey in 2006. The estimate for 2008 was only slightly higher: $14.6 million.

"Everything is expensive right now," said Fernando Armento of Clovis, who makes $8.50 an hour driving a tractor but still tries to send money to his parents in Mexico. "It's very hard."

Armento said that a couple of years ago, he would wire about $400 a month to his parents. Now, he said, he's lucky if he can send $100.

Across Mexico, families who depend on money sent from relatives in the United States are receiving fewer dollar bills or waiting longer to get them.

Petra Chavolla, who lives in Maravillas, hasn't seen her youngest son since he went to Texas seven years ago at age 17. Two other brothers left 11 years ago. With no guarantee of getting back across the heavily patrolled U.S. border, they haven't been back since.

But Chavolla knew times had changed this past Mother's Day.

Instead of the extra cash she almost always received from her children, she got a phone call. Hit by hard economic times, rising gas and food prices, and a dwindling number of jobs for undocumented workers, Chavolla's children in Fort Worth, Texas, said they couldn't scrape together any extra money this time.

"I could tell they wanted to cry," said Chavolla, 62, fighting back tears herself. "I told them, 'If you can't, well, you just can't.' "

In the town of Zamora, where an Elektra store handles Western Union wire transfers from the States, manager Manuel Basurto said it had gotten so bad that he'd seen families sending cash to struggling relatives in the United States.

"It's only a handful of cases, but in the three years I've been working here, I've never seen that," he said.

Antonio Avalos, an economics professor at California State University, Fresno, said the sluggish economy is likely prompting some immigrants to return home. Avalos, who specializes in economic development in Latin America, said some returned when a Senate immigration reform bill didn't pass.

"It's not just that there's less money being sent, but there's also less people sending," Avalos said.

Some Mexican nationals returned to Mexico because they lost their jobs and can't find work, but it's unknown how many have left for Mexico, according to the Mexican Consulate in Fresno.

Jesús Martinez Saldaña, a former state legislator in Michoacán, Mexico, and a former Fresno State professor, said most immigrants will remain in the United States.

"What we are seeing is temporary," he said. "There are cases of people returning, but also of people leaving Mexico to the U.S."

Among those who plan to stay is Rita, a 24-year-old who declined to give her last name because she's an undocumented worker. She works at a packing plant in the Three Rocks area and helps support two daughters, ages 5 and 6, in El Salvador.

She sends $200 or $300 a month when she can.

"In El Salvador, there's no work there, and it's hard to go back and try to re-enter the United States," Rita said in Spanish. "It's a long journey."

Maria Zambrano, 67, of Dinuba expects the U.S. economy to worsen. That means less money for her parents in Guadalajara.

Zambrano, who retired in 1986 from working in the fields picking grapes and cucumbers, lives on about $600 a month from Social Security. Her nine grown children also give her money, and she sends some of that to her own parents in Mexico.

She's not sure how much longer she'll be able to do that.

"Sometimes I send $100 to $150 a month," she said. "It hasn't changed for me for four months. [But] I'll probably end up sending $50 a month."
Meanwhile, families are doing what they can just to get by, said Dora Mora, marketing director of the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Mora said she has seen more farmworkers trying to start home-based businesses, such as through catering or by selling arts and crafts.

"If they don't have the sufficient amount of money to support their family here," Mora said, "they can't send money over."

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