Tomorrow I am headed to Guatemala for a week to assist with a family project and do some reporting on immigration. It’s been over a year since I last wrote about immigration, having left Mexico in late September 2007, and I have to say I’ve missed the story. A lot has changed in the last year and now that I’m living in gringolandia I have a slightly different view and take on it all.
Nearly two years ago, I went to El Salvador and reported on how remittances are changing labor market dynamics in agricultural regions for the Houston Chronicle. I met farmers like Victor Canales who have been forced to recruit workers from Nicaragua to do the jobs young Salvadorans are now distainful of because of their low wages. (Canales’s Nicaraguan cook, by the way, fed me and photographer Luis Galdamez the tastiest and freshest corn tamale I’ve ever eaten at his broad, sturdy kitchen table.) I’ll no doubt see some of the same issues in Guatemala, and hopefully will have a chance to explore some of the other social impacts of families scattered across borders, states and provinces.
Since most of the dozens of stories I wrote for the Chronicle have disappeared into some kind of internet black hole, I’ve taken the liberty of posting the text for anyone who’s curious.
Too much of a good thing
November 12, 2006
By Eliza Barclay
Remittances from relatives in the U.S. have helped El Salvador‘s poor, but observers say the cash has left jobs unfilled as the economy stays stagnant
EL PICHE, EL SALVADOR — Earlier this year, Victor Canales faced a prickly dilemma when he tried to hire workers to help him care for his herd of 150 cattle. He spread the word around town that he was looking for five or six laborers for $8 a day, but nobody came knocking.
“The locals want at least $12 a day, and I just can’t afford to pay that,” Canales said. “There are few young people left in this town, and the ones who are here don’t want to work. They say farm work pays badly, so they won’t do it.” So Canales followed the lead of some neighbors and hired immigrants from Nicaragua without work visas to tend to his flock, as well as to cook and clean his house.
Some Salvadoran businessmen like Canales are complaining that remittances — payments to people here by relatives who immigrate to other countries — are allowing young workers to become lazy and finicky about jobs. But the beneficiaries of these payments respond that they are seeking better opportunities than those available in small towns like El Piche.
For this new generation of better-educated young people, it appears the best option for a brighter future often is to join relatives in the United States. Since the beginning of El Salvador‘s civil war in 1980, more than a quarter of the country’s population has migrated in search of better opportunities to U.S. cities like Houston and Los Angeles, and as far away as Switzerland and Italy.
Remittances are often hailed as an effective poverty alleviation tool. Billions of dollars — in El Salvador‘s case $2.8 billion in 2005 — went directly to the pockets of the poor, according to the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador. But some economic observers are pointing out how the huge inflow of money is also creating challenges.
These payments have made the lives of many here more comfortable, but the economy remains stagnant. “Remittances have not been able to energize the country’s productivity,” said Jesus Aguilar, executive director of Carecen International, a nonprofit in San Salvador that works to strengthen links between Salvadoran migrants and their communities of origin.
El Salvador now consumes far more than it produces, and remittances made up 16.6 percent of GDP in 2005, according to the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador.
Economic growth, too, was lower than that of any other Central American country in 2005, at just 2 percent. About a quarter of Salvadorans have emigrated and live outside the country, according to the Salvadoran Foreign Affairs Ministry, giving El Salvador one of the highest migration rates in the world. According to a report released by the World Bank last month, the costs associated with remittances are rarely taken into account, while the benefits are frequently overestimated.
The report concluded that for each 1 percent increase in the share of remittances to GDP, the number of people living in poverty is reduced by about four-tenths of a percent. In El Salvador‘s case, it found that remittances have helped 6.4 percent of the population to escape from poverty.
The impact of the of the payments has been a concern for Maria Victoria Vega, a Salvadoran immigrant who has lived in Houston since 1992, making a living cleaning houses and baby-sitting. She and her husband have been able to put their three children in their 20s through high school in El Salvador and one of them partially through college, but Vega said other migrants she knows do not require education or work from family back home.
“It’s bad when young Salvadorans back home get help from the families and then don’t work or study,” Vega said. “Most of us migrants come here because we want our families to live better, but not so that they become totally dependent. In my case I want my children to study and go further than I did in a career.”
Nelson Reyes, the Houston representative for Carecen International, said: “Remittances are a form of welfare for Salvadorans back in El Salvador. They’ve become something damaging for some families because they’re not used wisely.”
El Piche is part of the municipality of El Carmen, where about half of the households receive regular checks from those who have emigrated, according to the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report for El Salvador 2005.
The steady income from outside has made it difficult for businesses to find local workers at a wage they can afford, if they can find them at all, according to Manuel Orozco, head of the remittances and development project with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.
El Salvador‘s successive waves of emigration have meant that population growth has fallen, and that the average ago of those who remained has gone up.
Many of the young people who are still in the country are beneficiaries of remittances payments. This income gives them the luxury to pass on low-wage jobs.
“Kids here are staying in school longer because their parents or other relatives are able to pay their school fees, but the local economy has not changed enough to offer them new opportunities,” said Katherine Andrade, coordinator of the migrations and human development program with the United Nations Development Program in El Salvador.
Andrade added that these young people are expecting higher wages because of what they’d heard about the U.S. labor market from their relatives abroad. The higher wages in the U.S. act incentive for more young workers to leave, she said.
“It’s a Catch-22, because countries make attainments in education, then the educated young people end up in the U.S. labor market,” Andrade said.
Some see the labor shortage as a result of a decreasing work ethic, thanks to the remittance flow.
“People here want to gain a lot and work little,” said Heber Flores, mayor of the El Carmen municipality. “But the Nicaraguans are happy to work and bring the dollar home.”
In the central plaza of El Carmen, a town 20 minutes from El Piche, Humberto Blanco, 28, kicked around a soccer ball with friends. Blanco tried once to go the United States, but made it only as far as Veracruz, Mexico.
He works part-time in a nursery and received training in bookkeeping. He nearly finished high school with the help of money sent to him by his brother in Houston and his sisters in Washington, D.C. That is more education that nearly every member of his family, he said.
“There are 300 accountants for every accounting job in this country.” Blanco said. “But I wouldn’t work in the fields even if I didn’t have job. The pay is just bad.”
The lure of earning dollars in El Salvador — where the economy is based on the U.S. dollar — has helped to pull immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua.
Canales recalled six months ago, when Jeremias Poveda, 28, showed up and offered to do whatever work was available. Others from Poveda’s province of Madriz, Nicaragua, soon followed.
On a recent day, Poveda was sprinkling fertilizer in the steaming afternoon heat on a deep green field of maicillo, a corn-like plant used to feed the cattle. He said what he earns in one month in El Salvador, about $180, would take him three months to earn in Nicaragua.
“I’d go to the United States if I could, but I don’t have the money to pay the coyote, and I don’t have any family there,” Poveda said.
Orozco estimated that about 200,000 Hondurans and Nicaraguans are working in El Salvador.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, only 500 have legal work permits to do agricultural labor.
Santa Ana Romero, 24, cooks and cleans for Canales in his elegant house, which is still under construction.
She said she has been in El Salvador for four months, working to support her four children back in Leon, Nicaragua.
Despite having workers to help him out, Canales said that turning a profit in agriculture is still a challenge.
“Nicaraguans will do every kind of job,” Canales said. “The only question is still whether I can pay them. Sometimes I take a loss in order to pay them.”