As crackdown looms, Latin American immigrants rush home billions in cash

Byron Bentancourt, 29, sends cash home to his family in Honduras for Mother's Day. Immigrants like Bentancourt may be sending higher volumes of cash home in anticipation of an immigration crackdown.
Byron Bentancourt, 29, sends cash home to his family in Honduras for Mother's Day. Immigrants like Bentancourt may be sending higher volumes of cash home in anticipation of an immigration crackdown.

On a recent Saturday, Byron Bentancourt, 29, arrived at the Santa Ana corner store in Allapattah with a wad of $100 bills.

The next day was Mother's Day in his native Honduras. Bentancourt hasn't been back home in seven years, working instead throughout Miami-Dade as a construction worker earning $20 an hour.

"It's something very complicated, not being closer to her," said Bentancourt, whose only family stateside consists of an aunt and some cousins. Wearing jeans and a large cellphone clip, he looks every part the contractor — but he says he never expected he would end up in the building business, having grown up working on his father's ranch.

Bentancourt did not say whether he is undocumented. But a recent report says remittance volumes may be surging as immigrants like Bentancourt anticipate shorter stays in the U.S., causing them to send more of their savings home while they still can.

The report, released by the World Bank last month, showed remittances flowing into Latin America and the Caribbean grew 8.7 percent in 2017, reaching a record high of nearly $80 billion.

"Remittance growth was robust in Mexico [6.6 percent], El Salvador [9.7 percent], Colombia [15 percent], Guatemala [14.3], Honduras [12 percent], and Nicaragua [10 percent]," the report said. "In 2018, remittances to the region are expected to grow 4.3 percent to $83 billion, backed by improvement in the U.S. labor market and higher growth prospects for Italy and Spain."

In February, Manuel Orozco of The Dialogue, a non-profit group focused on issues in the Americas, published a report that came to a similar conclusion as the World Bank. In Honduras, for example, the principal amount remitted last year grew 17 percent. His survey found 55 percent of people feared being deported, and this group remitted 24 percent above the average.

He anticipates remittance totals will start trending downward when they are measured next year.

"The effects of deportations and reduced arrivals to the United States will certainly affect remittance transfers," he wrote. "The impacts are likely to be seen in a year’s time, and will be particularly severe for Mexico and Central American countries. In the case of Central American migrants, for example, an increase of 15% or more in deportations would reduce the number of migrants and remittance senders, thereby reducing remittances substantially."

Miami-based remittance transfer company Intermex says transaction volumes accelerated year over year from 2016 to 2017 in three of its four largest markets: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. By the end of this month, Intermex anticipates hitting a major transaction threshold and will surpass 2 million transactions in a single month, thanks in part to the rolling Mother's Days throughout Latin America.

Intermex CEO Bob Lisy says that most of its U.S. foreign national customers are "unbanked" — meaning they don't have bank accounts, usually because they are undocumented. That serves as a stumbling block to adopting digital money transfer technology because most apps have strict banking compliance standards. In-person remittance companies also have compliance requirements and must report suspicious activity, but sending cash does not require a bank-to-bank transaction.

But there is also a cultural component to sticking with what feels safe and familiar, Lisy said.

"We're not seeing a big migration [to digital] in our Latin America component," he said. "That's happening in other sectors faster, like India or the Philippines, where you have a different type of consumer."

Though Bentancourt considers himself tech savvy, he nevertheless prefers using the in-person remittance service provided by Intermex offered at Santa Ana.

"I feel more confident" using a face-to-face service, he said. A cousin also uses the service at the same store; they both live nearby.

In fact, Latin Americans are slowly adapting to the myriad digital options now available to transfer money home, reports show. But there is still an inherent mistrust of the new technology among some, according to Loany Madrid, co-proprietor of the Santa Ana market.

"[My customers] don’t like to use internet because we are Latinos, and we rather to do it face to face," she said. "They feel more secure this way."

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