Fear of Immigrants and Others is a Global Political Monkeywrench

Riots police separate pro and anti immigration demonstrators as a man waves a flag reading "Islamists Not Welcome" during a Pegida demonstration in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Feb. 6, 2016.

Riots police separate pro and anti immigration demonstrators as a man waves a flag reading “Islamists Not Welcome” during a Pegida demonstration in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Feb. 6, 2016. VOAnews.com

Hamburg   Meeting with people in the Netherlands and Germany, conversation quickly comes to the Clinton-Trump race. People want to be reassured that Trump really can’t win. They don’t want to hear that the vote will be close, even though Clinton will win in the Electoral College. Interestingly with all the brouhaha that Trump has stirred up over closing borders, building walls, blocking entry to Muslims, and deporting millions, no one asks about the issue, mainly because these are issues too worrisomely close to home for them as well.

In Holland, a xenophobic, anti-immigrant leader has risen and created a “party of one” largely on this platform. Though he may not have much of a party, he clearly has a base. Political experts believe that he is taking votes way from the Social Democrats, long the dominate party of unions and some of the left. The Social Democrats are in a free fall for many reasons including the compromises they have made on healthcare and other issues as part of the ruling coalition government, but a piece of the problem, similar to the challenge for the Democrats in the United States is anger and desertion of some older, working class voting segments reacting to the anti-immigrant campaigning.

In Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel a year ago during a humanitarian crisis opened Germany’s borders to one-million migrants largely from the war-torn Middle East and Syria, there has clearly been a political backlash over whether or not German standards of living and services are being compromised by these migrants. An upcoming election in Merkel’s home state is being watched closely to see whether her center-right governing party has been able to re-position itself with voters by implementing agreements to hold more of the immigrants in Turkey. Merkel is not retreating from her conviction that Germans “can do this,” but she is equally clear in recently reported interviews that she cannot lead along this path for another year, as she has for the last year. Her party in the state elections is busily echoing rightwing themes of homeland and security as it scurries about trying to hold onto its base. A new anti-immigrant party is expected to take votes away from Merkel’s Christian Democrats as well as the more progressive Social Democrats.

And, what in the world is this urkini thing about in France? Courts there have overruled local municipalities over their burkini banning, but reports are indicating that the activity, right down to having police stop Muslim women on the beach and make them disassemble their outfits, were very popular with the general French public. The rightwing, anti-immigrant party there did not fare as well as they had hoped in recent elections, but continues to be a serious force nationally.

Country to country immigration, migrants, and refugees are divisive political issues. Muslim women in particular are reporting worldwide that they are being viewed differently and worse than in the past. Discrimination in large and small ways is increasing.

Today there are no hard questions for an American traveler on immigration, because embarrassingly, too many progressives and others are fearing that politically we may be more united by hate that any other national value. Everyone is living in glass houses now, so no one is throwing stones, and fewer and fewer are leaving their doors open.


Moving Money with the Migrants – Hawala Style

HawalaNew Orleans    Given all of the trials and tribulations connected to the tales of the migrants streaming north from the Middle East to escape war and violence, it is good to see the hawala system for safely and inexpensively transferring money getting some attention. One of the ironies of the predatory remittance or money transfer system skimming billions of dollars from families and workers being transmitted back to their home countries and families left behind at huge costs is the age old, traditional hawala transfer of money based on trust. Trust, only costs about one-half of a percent to one-percent, while modern, superfast computerized systems can suck 20% or more out of the remittance for their so-called trouble.

A fascinating story accompanied by graphics in the Wall Street Journal by Giovanni Legorano and Joe Parkinson did about the best job of explaining how the system works that I have ever seen. They noted that “90% of the transactions in a people-smuggling trade valued at around $2.5 billion a year in Europe, according to European security officials and researchers” utilizes the hawala system. Furthermore hawala is the method of choice “for a further $390 billion a year that migrants send back home as part of an informal but widely accepted financial system used across the developing world.” This is no small potatoes operation!

Security officials hate it because records of the transactions often disappear after the money is safely with the intended parties. Banks and others hate it because they don’t want to lower their fees to compete with the system, so they malign it, yet the system thrives in the Middle East, Africa, and south Asia.

The graphic description is so accurate and precise that I can’t help but share it while wishing we could all go forth and do likewise! You have to note a first time ever graphic attribution in the Journal which identifies the source for the graphic as “people familiar with the transaction.” Gotta, love that!

Anyway, here’s how a financial system works based on low cost and trust, thanks to the Journal of all places.

Step 1: Sender of the money gives hawala broker, we’ll call Broker A, money to be transferred to a beneficiary.

Step 2: Hawala Broker A contacts hawala Broker B by phone, WhatsApp, Skype or email and tells him the amount to pay the beneficiary. They also establish a passcode associated with the transaction.

Step 3: Broker A gives the passcode to the original sender and tells him where Broker B is located in the country or location where the money can be received.

Step 4: Sender gives the passcode to the beneficiary and tells him where to pick up the money.

Step 5: Beneficiary gives the passcode to Broker B and picks up the money. Bam, all good, smoother than silk, and faster than UPS or Federal Express. The brokers at a later stage settle any imbalances on the transaction.

Hawala is legal in some areas. Legal or illegal, migrants use the system to keep from being robbed along the way.

If banks and money transfer organizations won’t reduce their fees to the real level of their costs and eliminate the predatory profits they extract, we have to hope that the hawala system continues to thrive and grow so that beleaguered families have a chance to make new and better lives. If governments are concerned about security all they have to do is force MTOs and banks to stop fleecing migrant and immigrant families, but as long as they are in the pockets of the predators, the hawala system that has worked for centuries on trust will continue to find a place in the modern global financial system.


Source Wall Street Journal

























Please enjoy Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color. Thanks to KABF.


“One of Us” and Fear of the Outsiders

Vigil for victims in Norway attacks AP Photo/Erlend Aas, Scanpix Norway

Vigil for victims in Norway attacks AP Photo/Erlend Aas, Scanpix Norway

New Orleans    Reading the tales of migrants struggling to flee civil wars in the Middle East is becoming a classic definition of the daily downer: unwanted, feared, and shunned. Women fleeing with children seem under constant attack, including sexual abuse. Countries erecting US-like walls and barriers of concertina wire at their boundaries. Even the Nordic countries, long liberal bastions of hope and support for oppressed migrants, are backlashing. Benefits in some countries are being halved. In other countries they are being warehoused far from cities with little support besides room and board. In some they are being deported once the host country feels that the coast is clearer in their native lands. Families are being separated and not allowed to unite.

I’m not pointing fingers given the current record in the United States and, other than Germany, most of the European Union as well. This is not our collective finest hour. I just had hoped the bar would be higher, rather than everyone racing to the bottom set in the US.

Reading One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Asne Seierstad about the horrific killing, first by planting a bomb at the center for government, Oklahoma City style, and then coldly and meticulously gunning down teens at a political party’s summer camp on an island not far from Oslo, prepared me for it a bit. I had resisted the book for the obvious reasons, though the reviews had been lavish in praise, because who really seeks out a book on mass murder for holiday reading. Unfortunately, the book is so well written and the story told so compellingly that even knowing the horrific ending, the reader is trapped in the hopes and dreams of the future victims and the nightmare of the delusions, egotism, and aspirations of the future killer.

The Norway story is not Newtown, Connecticut on steroids, but is a deeply disturbing political and personal tale as Breivik’s trajectory bends from youthful support and ambitions within a right wing conservative party in Norway to the phantasmagoric vision of an apocalyptical event that he expected would trigger a coup d’état supported by a mass movement on the right. All of this delusion came complete with a Unabomber-like manifesto where he was the self-anointed the leader of this hypothetical revolt. One thinks this is only possible in America, land of the two main parties and thousands of secret cells and “parties of one,” but no country, not even Norway is immune. The author’s “one of us” is a title taken from the eulogies for the victims, but Breivik was also “one of us” in terms of Norwegian society and the upper middle class, and though that theme is not pursued as diligently, it is also hard to ignore.

His whole fantasy was based in the same mainstream that is now flooding Nordic countries and the world. Norway for the Norwegians! Stop the Islamification of the country! Keep them out! Deport them! Stop the Muslims from raping Norwegian women and girls! This is not “Lillehammer” on Netflix. We have the classic conundrum where too many may agree with his goals, even as they disagree with his tactics.

It is worth worrying that the Breivik’s in country after country are not just one of them, but also one of us, unless we get a grip, lower the volume, and learn how to embrace, rather than shun the outsiders who will always be coming and have a place among us.


Making an Organizing Plan for a Domestic Workers Association in Morocco

CP5KNv0WcAAvUm5Grenoble One of my more exciting and interesting tasks during my week of working in France with ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, and our partner, ReAct, was spending hours of speculation on how we would make an organizing plan to build an association of domestic workers, including heavily exploited migrants, in Morocco. This work never gets old! At one point one of the organizing directors turned to me and said, “I bet you’ve never organized where there was a King!” She was making an excellent point. The Queen of England and her posse are largely expensive figurines, but having a ruler who could still reach out and grab the wheel was worth me doing some research about the different twists and turns that organizing in such a political environment might entail.

I had been “all-in” from the get-go of course because I have a soft spot in my heart for organizing domestic workers dating back to the Household Workers’ Organizing Committee in New Orleans in 1978 and decades of work on home health care workers and home day care workers. We don’t have a good grip on the overall size of the workforce in Morocco yet, but modestly the numbers are several hundred thousand and could likely rise to a half-million. Most of the workers are Moroccan of course and employed by everyone from the middle class on up the economic ladder, but a not insignificant number are migrants as well from the Congo and other African countries as well as more recently the Philippines. Many of the migrants are undocumented and therefore in a more precarious situation with their employers. All domestic workers in Morocco seem unprotected by any special legislation about their rights or entitlements.

The early research obviously involves scouring the labor code to see whether there are arguable handles on rights or any specific exclusions for domestic workers in the same way that domestics were initially excluded from any coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA until the late 1970’s. The early scan indicated that the migrant workers are expressly barred from everything, including membership or protection by unions, despite the newer constitutional amendments in the wake of the Arab Spring which tightened up the right of all workers in speak and organize. We also are trying to get a better sense of the size of the constituency so we have a handle on our task and a sense of what scale will be needed in the organizing campaign.

While brainstorming about the hiring network for employers we found anecdotal evidence that the labor market, especially for migrants, might be controlled by labor “agents” or brokers that connected to scores of women looking for domestic work and sometimes to countries supply the migrant labor. Where we had been talking about ways to find domestic worker day workers and the frustrations that come with the lack of access to residential domestic workers, we suddenly realized that our outreach and contact plan would be seriously flawed if the labor market was controlled by a network of agents and suppliers, who might see us as upsetting their business model. We will still have to start at bus stops and marketplaces near more upper income communities where people work, as well as at churches, mosques, and associations that might be able to offer contacts, but clearly we will have to get a better sense of the way the labor market is organized, before we begin concentrated recruitment. We already know a lot of the issues, but the work plan is a long way from complete.

Did I mention how exciting it is to be on the ground floor of such an organizing campaign?


Smartphones Might Accelerate Lowering the Cost of Remittances

spNew Orleans   For so many smartphones have only meant an even bigger time suck on Facebook, an easier way to play games while waiting for the bus, and a chance to watch YouTube videos of cats or people tripping on sidewalks or whatever. For those people who still think the whole world is only their personal oyster, there might have been some head scratching as they heard that a must-have tool for migrants, fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and trying to navigate their way across Europe to promised lands, is a smartphone. Smartphones? They don’t hardly have two cents and the shirts on their backs, but they have a smartphone? What’s up?

Well, the migrants fleeing for their lives is a huge issue and a humanitarian crisis, but maybe there’s a way to see a silver lining in the increased ubiquity and the obvious affordability of smartphones, especially when it comes to the drum that ACORN International and its affiliates continue to beat about the vital necessity as well to lower the cost of money transfers or remittances from these same migrants and other immigrants to each other and their home communities. Cheap smartphones flying off the shelf from China are part of the clue here, but there are also hopeful signs in Africa as some companies finally are making it easier – and cheaper – to use mobile phones to make bi-national money transfers. Google’s entry into the market in Africa and other developing countries could – and should – accelerate this as well.

London-based Vodafone and South Africa’s MTN, the largest telecom in Africa, are moving forward to facilitate mobile payments between their two huge networks. Vodafone’s Safaricom subsidiary in Kenya through its 14 million customer M-Pesa network already facilitates mobile phone payments for a huge number of purchases and services. Finally central government banks in Uganda and Rwanda have approved telecom transfers. The network of partnerships these companies are building in East Africa is expected to lower the transfer costs of remittances from the current 20% to only 3% or less. The ACORN International demand to the companies has been 5%, so this would be huge. The toothless World Bank even says that reducing prices for the $48 billion worth of remittances in Africa by even 5% say from 20% to 15% would save desperate families $16 billion!

Small, old school “burner” type mobile phones with dual SIM card slots are all over Kenya to allow transfers across networks, but new market entries in large, developing countries could also make a difference. Google’s Android One phone, using its software and Chinese and other manufactures came out last year in India and ten other countries including Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Philippines. An upgraded model of Android One was announced by Google a couple of weeks ago for Nigeria with all the features needed from dual SIM slots to software lengthening battery life and speeding internet access where connections are weak. The phone is also available on-line in Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Morocco.

For smartphones to become the handsets of choice and tools for forcing the cost of remittances down and the predatory costs to plummet, pricing is still an issue. Many of the Chinese phones, that also use older versions of Android software, sell for $50, and African and other developing country customers, not unlike many of us non-I-Phone people, purchase on price. Google’s phone is now set at $89 in Nigeria and almost $100 in India. MTN offers $62 smartphones in South Africa and various models between $47 and $57 in Nigeria. Google is likely going to need to get the price down to $30 to $50 to play head-to-head. But, that’s their problem.

Ours continues to be how to put billions of more dollars into communities for their own development and to families to improve their living standards. Moving closer to a system that gets rid of the bankers, Western Union’s, and MoneyGram’s, and lets money move hand to hand through your phone at a fraction of the cost, is our big problem, and smartphones and even the Googles and almost equally predatory telecoms may help us get there, whether that was their intention or not.


Remittances Increase from USA, Progress on Disclosures, and Pushback from MTOs

New Orleans  I badly want to say that there is finally progress in the United States on remittances, which are financial transfers from immigrant families, migrant workers, and others to their families and communities back in their home countries.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the volume of money being remitted has in fact gone up based on the numbers available for 2010.  Our colleague, Manuel Orozco, the foremost US expert on remittances, even predicts an increase of 7% to 8% to Latin America and the Caribbean this year, which is also good news for developing countries.  The toothless World Bank says that the 215 million migrants it estimates around the world are moving $372 billion to developing countries in 2011 and they expect it to hit $399 in 2012 and $467 billion in 2013.  These are huge numbers, especially when one country after another continues to look the other way as migrants and immigrants are gouged by the costs of sending the money through the various money transfer organizations (MTOs).

The much heralded Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that was the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, now running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts took up the matter this year and has promulgated regulations.  Unfortunately, they gummed the problem as well, possibly because of the limits on their authority.  Rather than addressing the predatory nature of the pricing, the final rule which takes effect in February 2013 simply puts forward the standard liberal palliative of better disclosure.  I’ve often shared the limited value of the disclosures in the tax preparation industry for predatory refund anticipation loans (RALs), where the companies (H&R Block, Liberty, Jackson-Hewitt) were all too willing to flaunt their 250% on computer screens and big posters, knowing that the marks (clients?) were so desperate for their money they had no choice but to suck down the charges.  This is the same song now with remittances, simply another verse.

To quote their own website summary, the CFPB rule says the following:

The rules require companies to give a disclosure to a consumer before the consumer pays for a remittance transfer. The disclosure must list:

  • The exchange rate,
  • Fees, and taxes,
  • The amount of money to be delivered abroad.

Companies must also provide a receipt or proof of payment that repeats the information in the first disclosure. The receipt must also tell consumers the date when the money will arrive.

Companies must provide the disclosures in English. Sometimes companies must also provide the disclosures in other languages.

I’ll read the whole 113 pages of the rule in coming days in hopes of finding something more helpful, but I’m afraid that’s the deal.

Outrageously, Miriam Jordan of the Journal reports this new rule “could raise costs for consumers…some experts said.”  She then quotes someone from Wells Fargo, which is an embarrassment of a bank on almost every count,

Daniel Ayala, head of global remittance services at Wells Fargo, praised the rule for creating a level playing field.  But he cautioned that, ‘there are details that could…ultimately result in limiting access, higher costs and confusion.’

Are you kidding me?!?  Finally having a wee bit of transparency (in English which doesn’t necessarily help!) and a receipt is going to raise costs.   Wells Fargo and their banking and MTO buddies simply have no shame.  I hope these hypocrites made a big fat contribution to Clinton’s Global Initiative, because they certainly don’t mind exploiting the living bejesus out of these immigrant and migrant families.

In Canada the bill to cap costs at 5% (remember that is the World Bank and G-8 goal!) is making progress.  More endorsements have come forward from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the University of Toronto Student Union.  There are also encouraging discussions with the Liberals, who may actually join with the NDP in a joint bill.  I’m holding my breath.  Somewhere developing countries and the workers trying to help their families have to get a real break on costs, not just a piece of paper with some numbers on it.