Remittances, Development, and Illegal Immigration

It’s long been known that poverty and desperation drive a good deal of illegal immigration to the United States. Although the numbers have been dropping with increased border enforcement, thousands still make the trek northward from Mexico and Central America, hoping to get into the United States to escape the poverty, corruption, violence, drug trafficking, and the general lack of opportunity in their homelands.

As Andrew Wainer of the Bread for the World Institute points out in a recent article in National Journal, many illegal immigrants also are driven by the need to find work that will pay enough to support family members back home. [See Opinion: Remittances and the International American Dream, by Andrew Wainer, National Journal, The Next America series, 28.Aug.2012.] This is particularly true for unauthorized immigrants from the heavily-impoverished Northern Triangle countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – who, other than Mexicans, comprise the largest number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States, Wainer says.

“There are approximately 2.5 million immigrants from the Northern Triangle in the U.S., and in 2011 they sent home more than $10 billion in remittances. Remittances comprise 17 percent of the gross domestic product in Honduras, 16 percent in El Salvador, and 10 percent in Guatemala; and they dwarf both foreign direct investment and overseas development assistance.”

If this stream of remittance income dried up, Wainer argues, millions of poor families in the region would be plunged further into poverty. Wainer’s argument suggests that too much immigration enforcement could lead – albeit indirectly and unintentionally – to increased illegal immigration, to the extent that such enforcement cuts off a source of remittances. Is there any way out of this vicious circle?

Perhaps so. Wainer says that allowing nearly 2 million young DREAMers to stay and work legally in the United States will provide a larger pool of remittances to help stabilize impoverished communities in Latin America. This alone will not be enough, Wainer contends, because Central American families still tend to use remittances for subsistence, rather than investing in long-term projects that could help alleviate poverty in the future. Breaking this hand-to-mouth cycle will require better collaboration among all of the stakeholders, he says, including regional governments, U.S. development agencies, and the international diaspora of Central Americans.

“U.S. development agencies are well positioned to facilitate the productive use of remittances into its development agenda to better harness remittances for development in Central America. There are U.S. development programs like this in Africa, but their implementation in Mexico and Central America – the source of more than 80 percent of all unauthorized immigration to the United States – is lagging.”

Here is an agenda item ripe for consideration. Let’s hope that the victor in November will recognize the need to address the root causes of illegal immigration, not just score rhetorical points from it.

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