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Facing Deportation, Immigrants Reconsider Financial Options

If President Donald Trump makes good on his promise to deport millions of immigrants, we can expect to see international banking patterns fluctuate, migration experts say.
A man is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on October 14th, 2015, in Los Angeles, California.

A man is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on October 14th, 2015, in Los Angeles, California.

The marked uptick in raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement since President Donald Trump’s inauguration has left many immigrants, both documented and undocumented, scrambling to adjust to life under the new presidency: Many are removing tattoos, scrubbing their bodies of evidence they’ve associated with gangs; some survivors of domestic violence have refused to report their crimes for fear of deportation. Still others are thinking even further into the future about what might happen in the event they’re sent back to their home countries, and are taking what they deem to be the appropriate financial precautions.

Staring down the possibility of imminent deportation, some documented immigrants have begun withdrawing the funds from their bank accounts, sending the money to family members in other countries for safekeeping.

Outgoing payments sent via wire transfer from the United States to Mexico — known as “remittances,” and usually consisting of migrant workers’ small wages — increased by over 6 percent between January of 2016 and 2017, according to data published March 2nd by international banking conglomerate BBVA.

Anabell Martinez, the housing director at the D.C. immigration clinic Central American Resource Center, says that PNC Bank has referred a handful of clients to her, all of whom have requested that the bank withdraw the contents of their checking and savings accounts; moreover, she says, her point of contact at the bank specified that they’ve seen an increase in the number of clients requesting they do so. A spokesperson for the bank declined to comment on this allegation.

Remittances are Mexico’s largest source of income. The amount that flowed into the country last year via migrant workers, nearly $27 billion, is greater than the $23 billion Mexico collects annually in oil revenue — and nearly all of it comes from workers living in the U.S. But those numbers could take a drastic downturn under Trump.

“The fear is palpable in the immigrant community. It wouldn’t surprise me if people would act on that fear.”

According to his publicly released plan of payment for the proposed Mexico-U.S. border wall, Trump would ban undocumented workers from wiring money outside the U.S.—a way of strong-arming the Mexican government into footing the bill for the 30-foot-high barrier. (He argued that doing so would be an effective leveraging tool because remittance money is “de facto welfare for poor families in Mexico,” and that eliminating it would be particularly painful because “there is no significant social safety net provided by the state in Mexico.”)

While the World Bank has not yet released remittance data for the first quarter of 2017, University of California–Davis School of Law Dean Kevin Johnson notes that, given the Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric on immigration, a recent spike in the number of remittances sent “would be a logical deduction.”

“I do think there may have been an incentive created [for immigrants] to send money to family in Mexico and Central America,” Johnson says, adding that there is a “send now and not later” mentality among them. “The fear of [deportation] is palpable in the immigrant community. It wouldn’t surprise me if people would act on that fear.”

He added that, while undocumented immigrants always live with a modicum of fear, there is “a very different sentiment in the immigrant community [now]” than what existed during the Obama administration. “There wasn’t the saber-rattling, [the] threatening to escalate action. You hear statements every day about more boots on the ground, a bigger and more beautiful wall. Both people who live in the shadows and those who are legal are fearful [of deportation],” he says.

Manuel Orozco, director of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Department of Migration, Remittances and Development (IAD), notes that this is partially due to the recent “empowerment” of ICE agents under Trump. Their increased presence at places like airports, non-governmental organizations, and churches, he says, is making people “anxious, fearful, and intimidated.”

But Orozco notes that, even if remittances have temporarily spiked in the short term, that trend won’t last long if Trump makes good on his promise to deport the “criminal illegal immigrants” in the U.S., of which he estimates there are “probably two million.” Because 60 percent of the growth in remittances has come from Mexico and Central America, deporting or incarcerating nationals from those states would dramatically reduce the size of the population most likely to remit.

The “Trump phenomenon,” as Orozco calls it, “is not immediate.” He says that analysts likely won’t start noticing changes until at least the second financial quarter of this year, but estimates in a paper for IAD that mass deportations in the coming months could lead to a drop of over $1 billion in total remittances, a devastating blow to the economies of Central and South American states. The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, has laid out aggressive plans to deport immigrants — in part by stripping undocumented residents of their rights under the Privacy Act and hiring an additional 10,000 ICE officers.