Region's Immigrants Building a Better Life -- Back Home
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
It was a Saturday night charity bash in Fairfax County, and El Salvador's new economic elite was stepping out.
Maids. Gardeners. Truck drivers. They packed the Shriners hall on Arlington
Boulevard, gyrating to pounding merengue, chugging beer and tossing crumpled
into a cardboard box to help earthquake victims in El Salvador.
These struggling Northern Virginia immigrants might have a lowly role
in the U.S. labor force. But in El Salvador, they have become coveted foreign
Salvadoran diplomats were assiduously courting the boogieing benefactors, some of whom barely finished eighth grade.
The immigrants who sponsored the dance have bestowed a string of gifts
on their Salvadoran home town of Chinameca in the past few years: a new
clinic, an ambulance, a public laundry center, restrooms for a school. Through Washington area parties, bake sales and business donations, the immigrant club
estimates it has raised more than $300,000 for the impoverished town.
"El Salvador survives thanks to the money they send home," said Sussy
Quintanilla, the community affairs envoy at the Salvadoran Embassy, referring
to her country's
1.5 million emigrants, most of whom left for the United States.
Indeed, as their numbers have soared, immigrants in the United States
have become the leading source of development aid for many countries --
especially in Latin
America, the source of more than half of foreign-born U.S. residents. And the flood of "migra-dollars" now extends well beyond remittances wired to relatives for
medicine or tortillas. Increasingly, Latin American governments and international aid agencies are seeking to direct these billions of dollars into schools, roads and
other development projects.
The amount sent home by Salvadoran immigrants, a mere $10 million in
1980, will total about $2 billion this year, according to the Salvadoran
Washington -- a sum equivalent to the annual world profits of McDonald's Corp.
Rene Leon, El Salvador's ambassador to the United States, estimates
that 10 percent of the immigrant assistance to his country comes from Salvadoran
donating to community projects. Those groups are often "hometown associations" like the Chinameca club, composed of Salvadorans in a U.S. city who came from
the same town or state and are funding improvements there.
Mexican immigrants in the United States, who send home an estimated
$7 billion a year, have formed at least 600 such associations -- including
clubs in Alexandria,
Manassas and Riverdale -- and Mexico's government is encouraging the trend by matching many of the contributions.
The importance of this international money flow was underscored last
month when the Salvadoran government persuaded President Bush to let Salvadorans
in the United States illegally apply for 18-month work permits so that their remittances would help their country recover from its two devastating earthquakes. The
Honduran foreign minister, Roberto Flores, was in Washington last week to seek an extension of a similar measure granted to his country in 1999.
Latinos in the Washington area, as in other parts of the United States, take pride in their status as coveted investors and in the impact their dollars are having.
"This is the number one help for our country," declared Carlos Robles,
a Salvadoran immigrant who runs an Alexandria travel agency and helped
organize the recent
benefit dance in Fairfax County. "There are rich people who have big estates and grow coffee [in El Salvador]. We're bigger than them."
But these money transfers also are feeding a debate that echoes from
rural Salvadoran pueblos to emigre neighborhoods such as Mount Pleasant.
Do the gifts breed
dependency in Latin America and encourage further migration? Do they come at too high a price, draining resources that could otherwise be invested in low-income
immigrant communities in this country?
Saul Solorzano, director of the Central American Resource Center in
Columbia Heights, calls the remittances "a necessary loss, because people
want to support their
But, he said, "in many cases, that means they will not be able to save
enough money to provide a better education to their children here. It also
means they will not be
able to have more money for housing and other basic necessities."
Alfredo Tolosa, 51, who lives in Falls Church and is a gardener at the
Potomac School in McLean, sends home about $400 a month, up to 20 percent
paycheck. In addition to sending money to his mother, a brother's family and a nephew and niece orphaned by El Salvador's civil war, Tolosa, who emigrated in
1979, also contributes to hometown fundraisers.
"Since God gave us this opportunity, I want to help my family," said
Tolosa, a silver-haired man who wore a starched, pinstriped shirt to the
recent fundraising dance
in Fairfax. He also wants to help his country. And he said he trusts Salvadoran clubs more than the Salvadoran government.
"Even if it's just a dollar, I know it will get there," he said.
The Northern Virginia group that organized the dance calls itself the
United Community of Chinameca. It was formed a decade ago, after two dozen
residents of the
Washington area traveled home at Christmas to that city, which is about 75 miles east of San Salvador. They were struck by the dilapidated state of the local church.
"We decided to fix up the church, paint it and buy pews," recalled Francisco
Castro, 42, project manager at Fairfax Circle Villa apartments. "We thought
working on the church. But then we continued getting the letters, the requests [from Chinameca]. We gained the fame of being able to send help from the United
Castro's group is one of about a dozen Salvadoran hometown associations
in the Washington area, which has the second-biggest Salvadoran immigrant
the country. Los Angeles, with the largest number of Salvadoran immigrants, has more than 100 associations.
Salvadoran diplomats in the United States often get involved in the
clubs' work by mediating with officials back home, removing bureaucratic
hurdles and identifying
potential donors here. Fostering closer ties with Salvadorans living abroad has become a top foreign-policy priority in El Salvador and is handled by the country's
Mexican President Vicente Fox recently appointed a special representative
to attend to Mexican immigrants' concerns and gave him an office in the
palace. "Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I'm informed about the projects of the clubs" in the United States, said the representative, Juan Hernandez. The
projects the clubs are funding range in value from $1,000 to more than $1 million, he said.
Other Latin American countries, such as Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, benefit from similar groups.
And the hometown associations have become a hot topic among international
development organizations. Today, the World Bank will co-sponsor a conference
using remittances as a development tool. In May, the Inter-American Development Bank will host a similar meeting.
The development organizations acknowledge that remittances are now much
bigger than their own aid. In Latin America, the migrant money has soared
billion in 1980 to $14.1 billion in 1999, according to World Bank estimates. That growth is part of a worldwide trend reflecting increased migration, relatively cheap
travel and easier ways to send money home, experts say. Globally, the bank estimates that remittances to developing countries have ballooned nearly fourfold in the
last 20 years, to about $50 billion.
Although the money has provided desperately needed assistance to poor areas, analysts caution that there are downsides.
In countries such as El Salvador, some officials worry about the development
of a culture of dependency, fearing that residents won't want to work because
cash arriving from abroad.
In the United States, analysts are divided on whether the growing dependence
on dollars will prompt more Latin Americans to leave their homelands. Some
donations spur immigration by reinforcing the belief that wealth can be accumulated quickly in this country. Others maintain that the gifts hold down immigration by
providing subsistence for people who might otherwise head for El Norte.
Another issue is to what extent immigrant communities in the United
States are being held back because their resources are flowing abroad.
Some experts cite the
example of Cuban Americans, saying their communities have thrived in part because they were long unable to send money home and invested it instead in businesses
and education here.
Many of the Salvadoran immigrants at the Fairfax dance spoke of making heavy sacrifices to support relatives and neighbors back home.
Francisco Hernandez, 43, a construction foreman, and his wife, Vilma,
39, a housecleaner, work four jobs between them, including their office-cleaning
night. They send up to $500 a month to family in El Salvador, in addition to participating in the fundraisers of the Chinameca club.
"We pay the rent, and we have nothing left," Vilma Hernandez said. And
they make their rent payments, she said, only because their 24-year-old
son, a construction
worker, chips in.
But she sees no alternative. She and her husband must buy medicine for her mother, and they pay tuition at technical school for their two children still in El Salvador.
"We feel the strain," she said. "But at least we are allowing others to live better."