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Through this series, we examine the disproportionate financial toll of COVID-19 on Black and Latino communities, including how it has affected individuals, families and businesses.

Many Immigrants In Charlotte Area Struggling To Send Money Home — When It’s Needed More Than Ever

Courtesy of Martha
Martha helps collect donations for Honduras after two hurricanes struck the country in November 2020

Está historia está disponible en español en La Noticia

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras, killing two of Martha’s children and destroying her restaurant.

“I lost everything — the business, two of my children, two of my girls — and that’s what made me come here,” Martha said.

After recovering from the injuries she suffered in the storm, Martha began the process of immigrating to the United States, leaving her three remaining children with her family in Honduras. After several attempts, she arrived two years later. She first lived with her sister in New York City. A couple years later she brought her kids to the U.S. They all moved to Charlotte in 2004.

Martha has been sending money to her family in Honduras and Spain to cover their needs ever since. Like most immigrants, she sends these remittances through apps like MoneyGram and Western Union.

“I don’t just help my dad. There’s lots of people back home who always need our help, and we have to show up,” Martha said. WFAE is not using her full name because she is not in the country legally and fears reprisal.

Sending remittances is a common practice for most migrants in the United States. These payments are sent to their home countries to cover the costs of living for the family members left behind.

Martha lost her job seven months before the coronavirus pandemic began when the place she worked dipping strawberries in chocolate suddenly closed. While working that job, she had a side hustle selling handbags, clothes and perfumes to make extra money. Between this side business and her husband’s construction job they had both been able to continue sending remittances to their families.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Martha’s financial situation began deteriorating. She says her sales in 2020 were cut in half.

“A lot of my customers have stopped buying from me because they don’t have jobs,” Martha said.

But this loss of revenue hasn’t stopped her from sending money back home. With the help of her husband and his construction job, Martha has continued sending remittances to her family — although she’s had to reduce the amount of money she sends. In a normal year, Martha says, she would send $5,000 in remittances. In 2020, she was only able to send her family $2,000.

Martha’s husband has also had to cut down his remittance payments. He normally sends his daughter in Mexico $150 a week, but at times, those payments have dropped to $100 every two weeks.

This money is meant to cover her stepdaughter’s food, education, transportation, clothing and any other needs, Martha said.

“This is a chain,” Martha said. “If we do well, then everyone does well. But if the person who provides isn’t doing well, then it’s a problem for everyone.”

Immigrants often send remittances because their families back home don’t have enough money to survive.

Like Martha and her husband, the pandemic forced immigrants across the U.S. to cut down on how much they send back home. The World Bank predicts a 14% drop in the amount of remittances sent internationally due to the economic impact COVID-19 has had on the immigrants that send this money home.

The Pew Research Center says remittances to Latin America dropped sharply in the first months of the pandemic and then rebounded in the summer. But remittances are still down in Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Guatemala when compared to 2019.

In Mexico, it’s a different story. Remittances are up by 10% compared to 2019. It’s unclear why, but the World Bank says it could be that many Mexican immigrants in the U.S. were essential workers who held onto their jobs.

This all comes at a time when financial help is needed the most. The impact of COVID-19 could lead to the most severe contraction in economic activity in Latin America, according to the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Unemployment in the region is up to 11.5%, and in 2020, an added 28.7 million people went into poverty.

Pastor Maudia Melendez, director of Jesus Ministry Inc., which is actively involved in supporting Charlotte’s Latino community, says sending remittances is common for Latino immigrants in the area, many of whom don’t have high-paying jobs.

Melendez says sending money home has continued to be a priority throughout the pandemic. People tell her that they have knowingly gone to work sick because they can’t risk losing their jobs or not getting paid.

“That’s the other reason why they have to work because it's not only the family here, but the family in Mexico and Central America,” she said. “That's their lifeline.”

While many immigrants, like Martha, have had to reduce the amount of money sent, Melendez says they have found ways to continue providing remittance payments. Some, she said, ask neighbors for loans while others get entrepreneurial.

“They're not going to stop. Our community is very resilient,” Melendez said. “If they don't have the money, they sell tamales to their neighbors to send money to their family members.”

They stress to Melendez that sending money back home is their priority and they can’t stop working.

Martha knows that feeling. Her family’s need for money has only grown during the pandemic. She’s getting desperate calls from friends and family who had never asked for her help before.

“Really people are in despair,” she said. “And even more so now.”

She’s not sure if she’ll be able to help them all, but she sends any money she would have used to buy a little extra for herself back home.

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