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Immigrants are sending more than ever back to families in Mexico as COVID-19 cases rise

“It’s really about solidarity,” says an expert in U.S.-Mexico relations

Margarito Garcia, a 32-year-old immigrant living in Dallas, stepped up his support of his mother back in Mexico this year. Sure, the coronavirus beat up the U.S. economy. But COVID-19 made life much more miserable in Mexico, he said.

Such compassion defies economists’ expectations of the global pandemic. The flow of money, known as remesas or remittances, has risen by 10% this year as U.S. families assist those back in Mexico. More people are giving and in larger amounts.

“It is going up because there is a need,” said Garcia, who works as a banker. “You have to depend on your family.”

Mexicans stricken with COVID-19 often find the public health care system straining from the load, he said. The country of 126 million has one of the world’s highest mortality rates from COVID-19.

Garcia’s money transfers are part of a surge that has topped 10 million made monthly, at about $350 an electronic pop.

“It is really about solidarity,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Washington, D.C.,-based Migration Policy Institute. “It’s Mexican migrants coming on strong for their families at the time the families need them, and bucking the predictions of economists.”

For nearly every month this year through September, remittances have surged past 2019 levels. Remittances to Mexico hit an extraordinary $4 billion in March, just as the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic. Though they haven’t reached that level since, in September the flow to Mexico was $3.6 billion.

Remesas have long served as a sort of binational health insurance. They help Mexican families pay for everything from school books to clothes washers to home additions.

The rise in remesas demonstrates how deeply the two countries’ labor markets are connected. Migration has long been a financial stabilization strategy for many families, with workers heading to other countries to provide for family back home. Those economic connections are critical for families on both sides of the border as everyone faces the pandemic.

Mexico’s economy is expected to contract by about 9% in 2020, and the U.S. economy is expected to contract by about 4%, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Mexico’s economic suffering has been deeper than that of the U.S., but Hispanic workers in the U.S. took a severe blow in April. Hispanics had the highest unemployment rate nationwide of any demographic group at almost 19%. It has since fallen to a little less than 9% in October.

Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador predicted remesas will hit a record $40 billion in 2020 — a nearly 10% rise from the record $36 billion in 2019. Based on the number of transfers, he estimated that remesas go to about 10 million families.

That’s about a million more monthly transfers than a year ago. There are about 11 million Mexican-born residents in the U.S., with a variety of legal statuses, from naturalized U.S. citizens to unauthorized immigrants, according to Pew Research Center.

“There is a drastic increase in the number of migrants remitting,” said Manuel Orozco, who heads the Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization at Washington, D.C.,-based Creative Associates International. “Now it looks like everybody is sending.”

Orozco has studied remittances and development policy since the 1990s. He was among those who believed there would be a remesas plunge. “The complexity of the pandemic is new to everyone,” Orozco said.

In Dallas, Socorro Perales, a Mexican immigrant, is among those making new monthly transfers during the pandemic. Perales, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has organized Mexican immigrants in Texas for two decades, in a variety of jobs. With an existing WhatsApp network, Perales and others stitched together more than three dozen immigrants in North Texas who sent money to more than 100 families in Guanajuato, a central Mexican state with huge migration to the Dallas area.

Monthly, about $600 electronically whizzed into the San Miguel de Allende area of Guanajuato. The Texas group quickly pivoted away from sending the money through transfer services at a large bank and a household appliance chain because of high fees and for holding the remesas funds for a week while needy families waited.

Instead, they opted to send the money to village grocery stores that began competing for their Texas business with small discounts. Those stores then put together bags of food from potatoes to beans to cooking oil.

“Papas, frijoles y aceite are a lot safer than pesos or dollars,” Perales said in Spanglish. Direct payments to the Mexicans were dangerous because of the persistent crime problem in Guanajuato, she said.

“We kept the economy going in those little villages and everything kept moving,” she said.

The family matriarchs in Guanajuato even sent a video thank you to the Texans. “May you have good health, too. … May God bless you, too,” said the village women.

Back in Guanajuato, Laura Garcia said in a phone interview that she and the other mothers in the villages are grateful. Some villagers were turned away from federal assistance because authorities said they had relatives in the U.S. who could help them, she said.

“Thanks be to God for the help of some of the people in the U.S.,” said the Guanajuato woman.

Margarito "Jr." Garcia, left, helps prepare food and essentials bags to distribute to the Texas needy at San Juan Diego Catholic Church in Dallas, TX, on Nov. 24, 2020.
Margarito "Jr." Garcia, left, helps prepare food and essentials bags to distribute to the Texas needy at San Juan Diego Catholic Church in Dallas, TX, on Nov. 24, 2020. (Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

Meanwhile, Margarito Garcia, the young banker, said he believes some Latinos in immigrant families in North Texas found they had more discretionary cash because the pandemic reshuffled spending.

Social distancing meant he stopped traveling and going out for dinner with friends. The money he saved helped cover expenses for his Dallas-based sister, who was unemployed for several weeks, and additional funds were sent to his mother in Zacatecas, a central Mexican state.

“I love traveling and going out. Unfortunately, I can’t now,” Garcia said.

His mother was visiting Dallas in February and March, just as the strange and deadly virus began its spread. She hasn’t been back since, Garcia said, and he theorizes that most Mexicans aren’t even trying to get travel visas now.

In the interim, as he waits for a return to normalcy, Garcia spends free time helping with distribution of free food at San Juan Diego Catholic Church. But he does so with somber reminders of spreading infections in both the U.S. and Mexico.

“Today, we had the first case of someone who passed away of COVID in Zacatecas, in my little town,” Garcia said, glumly.

Dianne Solis. Dianne covers immigration and social justice issues. The award-winning writer is a Wall Street Journal alum and a former foreign correspondent who was based in Mexico. She was a Nieman fellow at Harvard and holds journalism degrees from Northwestern University and Cal State University, Fresno.

dsolis@dallasnews.com /dianne.solis.5 @disolis
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