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The Problem of Remittances and Financial Literacy for Immigrants

ACORN International GSU Team: (left to right) Jennifer Phillips, Fred Brooks, Charlene Davison, Alice Lee, Brittany Burgess, Tim Zdencanovic

Atlanta   I got lucky and five students, now calling themselves the ACORN International Team at Georgia State University, picked as their major project at the GSU School of Social Work helping us develop information and support for our Remittance Justice Campaign.   We assembled at a Nepalese restaurant in an Atlanta neighborhood that is at the epicenter of immigrant and refugee resettlement so that we could compare notes and make out plans for the kind of deep and extensive look at remittance experience and costs in a US-city, similar to what we have done in Toronto and Mexico City previously during this campaign.

Going around the table, the reports were encouraging.   The survey instrument had taken shape.  We were making progress securing translators for the target communities among Burmese, Ethiopians, and Latinos.  Several churches and agencies where the students were doing field placements had already been enlisted to help and were showing some interest and enthusiasm in what we would find.  The team was committed to doing blogs and social networking to communicate and get the word out.  The goals of 100 completed surveys per team member could find us with 500 pieces of rich data to work into a report for ACORN International to release in Atlanta, Social Policy, and wider to engage more discussion about the need to change public policy.  We were on our way.

The one roadblock that kept cropping up in some of the reports was a repeated expression of disbelief, if not outright warning, to the team from the “gatekeepers” that immigrants would refuse to share information about the real costs of remittances with us.  One outfit offered to circulate it for us so that maybe they could extend more legitimacy to our questions about costs and transfer methods.  Another well intentioned soul suggested we not ask specifically what the cost of remittances were or the amount sent but give “ranges” between high and low dollar amounts.

As well meaning as the comments might have been, I was amazed at how clearly they and these notions were actually building the infrastructure for financial exploitation and illiteracy for “new” Americans that would inevitably and predictably lead them now predatory and perilous paths.  By avoiding real questions, discussion and engagement on practice and costs, immigrants and refugees would be relying on “word of mouth” recommendations about “best practices” rather than real data on the least expensive and most secure remittance streams and most reputable, reliable money transfer organizations (MTOs).  The gatekeepers were also assuming and projecting cultural values about the appropriateness of discussions about money that might be more common here, than elsewhere, and, more importantly, were making predictions not premised on field experiences.  They were projecting their own lack of comfort around financial issues onto the students before our team was in the field and could evaluate the credibility of their advice.  All of this was also in the face of information from the team already that those groups receiving resettlement grants from US-based sources almost invariably sent most of the money home immediately to their families left behind, and were also clearly not getting advice on the cheapest ways to make such remittances.  It also goes without saying that the team was not even asking for people’s names on the survey, unless volunteered.

In truth our experience in Canada, Mexico, and around the world where we have collected the data for the Remittance Justice Campaign is the opposite.  People can hardly wait to talk about their experiences in making remittances, especially since the dollars are dear and few can believe how much the middle men are raking off.  The Pew Trust and InterAmerican Bank have also contracted for such surveys repeatedly through “cold calls” and usual methodology without any difficulty.

Why would community organizers and total strangers have found that immigrants are anxious to share remittance experiences, yet some gate keeping agencies been resistant to real discussions with their “clients” about such critical issues?  The answer may lie right there:  seeing them as clients, rather than people, like the rest of us, trying to navigate confusing financial systems with limited information, and desperate for help.  New immigrants and refugees deserve better frankly, and in this area they deserve and have earned justice not continued exploitation.