Families across Central America are living in fear that US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies will stem the vital flow of money sent home by migrants each year.
The concern is that relatives who have emigrated without authorization will be deported, suddenly ending the billions of US dollars in annual remittances sent to their impoverished countries.
There are millions of Central Americans living legally in the US — but also 1.7 million unauthorized migrants from the region, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center.
Most of them come from the poorest, gang-ridden three countries known as the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Intipuca, a town south of El Salvador’s capital, symbolizes the life-changing value of the US dollars sent back home.
The town features big, colored houses adorned with iron-forged moldings that stand empty. Their owners live in the US and return only for special occasions like Christmas, weddings and family events.
In the park in front of the town hall there is a statue dedicated to Sigifrido Chavez, who in 1967 became the first local to migrate to the US.
Near the statue Jose Corpeno paces around as he speaks into a cellphone.
He says that he was talking with his daughter, who has been living in the US state of Maryland for a year and now “is living a nightmare.”
“We are so worried. Immigration agents went to a place close to where she lives,” Corpeno said.
The daughter paid a smuggler US$10,000 to lead her up north, and now she is living without authorization in the US.
“She’s working, but she’s afraid that at any moment she could be found out and detained,” Corpeno said.
The money the woman sends goes to a small plot of corn that her family depends on to survive.
“If she ends up being deported, then we’ll be in a bad way. We are poor, and the money she sends helps us,” Corpeno said.
The same anxiety is felt in Guatemala.
Victoria Flores, 70, said she relies on her 50-year-old son, Estuardo, who works as a dental technician in Los Angeles and whose remittances pay the mortgage, electricity, water and telephone service where she lived.
“This is a difficult situation, with worries every day because this president [Trump] has said that he will deport all the illegals from the United States,” Flores said.
The small woman called that policy “unfair.”
However, she also lays part of the blame on Trump’s predecessor, former US president Barack Obama for overseeing changes in US migration law.
Remittances make up a significant chunk of the economy in the Northern Triangle countries, so any decline would be felt immediately.
“Ninety percent of remittances go to consumption, and any decline will impact consumption and tax income,” said Mauricio Diaz, a coordinator in FOSDEH, a non-governmental Honduran body that monitors the country’s external debt and development.
In Honduras, remittances received last year amounted to US$3.9 billion. In El Salvador, it was US$4.6 billion, or 16 percent of GDP.
Guatemala, the most populous country in Central America, received more: US$7.1 billion — an amount nearly as big as the US$10 billion it makes in exports.
US aid to try to stem the violence and poverty in those countries was increased at the end of Obama’s term, but has so far had little effect.
Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly last month visited Guatemala to say that, while citizens should not try to illegally enter the US, there would be no mass deportations.
However, the situation on the ground appears to contradict that. Kelly’s department has issued internal memos setting out guidelines to boost arrests and accelerate the expulsion of undocumented immigrants.
Official figures for last year show that the US deported 21,500 Salvadorans, the same number of Hondurans and 35,500 Guatemalans.
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