State's Latino immigrants toil to uplift home folks

Maryland's immigrants from Latin America outdo their countrymen in other states at sending money to those they left behind, study finds

May 26, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Five days a week, Eduardo Castro works as a foreman for a construction company, overseeing building projects, making sure all the supplies are delivered and keeping the job on budget.

Then, once a month he goes to a small grocery store in Fells Point where the clerk speaks only Spanish and wires between $200 and $400 home to El Salvador. There, the money has paid off his parents' house and his sister's telephone and water bills and is helping to finance his niece's college education.

"One of the reasons that most of us come up here is to try to help our families. It's more for economical reasons if not political," said Castro, 35, who left his family and emigrated to the United States in 1990.

Latin American immigrants in Maryland send more money home on average than Latinos working in any other state, and they send it more often, a new study of immigrant spending patterns has found.

About 80 percent of Maryland's more than 170,000 Latin American immigrants are expected to wire money home this year, sending an average of almost $3,000.

Maryland immigrants typically send money to their home country an average of 14.8 times per year, compared with the national average of 12.6 times a year, according to a study commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank, a Washington-based group that focuses on the economic development of Latin America and the Caribbean.

That generosity reflects the relative youth of Maryland's Hispanic immigrant population and underlines its relatively recent growth, experts say. Young immigrants are more likely to have family back home than are older workers who might have sent for their relatives, the experts say.

One in four Maryland immigrants sending money home is between the ages of 18 and 24; across the nation, 15 percent are in that age group.

Maryland's immigrants are newer to the country than those in other states, in part because they have been lured by the state's recent strong economic growth and jobs in Washington and its suburbs.

Maryland "has a relatively recent migration pattern of adults from Latin America," said Donald Terry, manager of the multilateral investment fund of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Immigrants in states with longer histories of immigration, such as Texas and California, have had more time for families to join them in the United States, so they might not need to send as much money as newer immigrants do, such as those in Maryland, Terry said. And more recent arrivals might feel stronger ties to their home countries and be more likely to send money home.

About 60 percent of the 16.7 million Latin American adults in the United States send money home regularly. By the end of the year, they are expected to have sent $30 billion to their home countries, according to the study.

The study, which has a 3 percent margin of error for national information and 5 percent for state information, was compiled using census data and a survey of 3,800 households. Washington and 37 states were surveyed. Some states were not included because their combined populations included less than 1 percent of the Latin American adults living in the United States.

Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland, sends money home to his mother in Colombia every month. He emigrated to the United States a dozen years ago and said his contributions to Latin America are critical for both his family and his community.

Spending in U.S.

"I'm very proud to make a contribution both here and in my country," Torres said.

The workers sending money home to Latin America range from blue-collar laborers to professionals such as Torres. Experts and immigrant advocates say they also pump money into the U.S. economy by providing a labor force, paying rent and mortgages and, in some cases, starting businesses.

Workers typically send about 10 percent of their income home, leaving 90 percent of it in the United States to be spent on American goods and in sales and income taxes, Terry said.

"This is a huge, huge macroeconomic phenomenon," said Paul Dwyer, chief executive officer of Viamericas, a Bethesda-based company that handles money transfers to Latin America.

Money sent home by immigrants is different from other flows of money overseas because there is no intermediary, such as the government. The money goes directly to where it is needed without a public authority deciding how it will trickle down, Dwyer said.

The cost of sending money home varies with its destination. It costs $10 to send up to $3,000 to El Salvador through Viamericas. The cost of sending money to Colombia is $4 for up to $100, then 4 percent of anything more than $100, he said.

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