Why the proposed US fee on remittance outflows to LAC makes no sense

Photo credit: Pixabay

Alicia Nicholls

The cost of sending remittances from the US to some Latin American and Caribbean countries and dependencies will increase should HR 1813 introduced in the United States (US) House of Representatives on March 30, 2017, be passed. The proposed Bill entitled the “Border Wall Funding Act of 2017”, would amend the Electronic Fund Transfer Act by imposing a two percent fee on the US dollar value of remittances (before any remittance transfer fees) on the countries listed. The bill is sponsored by Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama’s third district.

One of President Donald Trump’s most controversial campaign promises was to build a wall along the US’ southern border, which he claimed would be paid for by the Government of Mexico, to deter illegal immigration. The Government of Mexico has consistently and strongly denied that its taxpayers would be paying for the wall. As a result Republican lawmakers have been seeking ways to fund the wall without relying on the US taxpayer. Instead, should this bill become law, it will raise money for the wall on the backs of hardworking Caribbean and Latin American immigrants living in the US, some of which are actually US citizens.

Here are some few reasons why I, respectfully, believe the proposed fee makes no sense:

  1. The wall will still be paid for by some US taxpayers

The two percent fee is to be imposed on the sender of any remittances sent to recipients in the countries identified. Ironically, it would still be funded by some US taxpayers as some remittance senders are either US-born or have acquired US citizenship or have greencard status. Data from the 2015 American Community Survey show that there are an estimated 4 million Caribbean-born immigrants living in the US. Some 58.4% of those became naturalised US citizens, while 41.6% are not yet US citizens according to US Census Bureau 2016 data.

2. The list of ‘foreign countries’ excludes some of the largest sources of illegal immigrants to the US

The affected  countries would be: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Cuba, the Cayman Islands, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Jamaica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Aruba, Curacao, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.

This arbitrarily drawn up list raises two main questions. (1) Why were Caribbean countries included in this list? The Caribbean sub-region as a whole only accounts for 2% of the illegal immigrant population in the US, according to Migration Policy Institute analyses. (2) Why were only countries from the Americas targeted when several Asian countries, like China for example, rank among the top sources of illegal immigrants to the US?

3. It is unlikely to raise enough money to pay for the border wall

It is unlikely that the two percent fee will raise enough money to pay for a wall which is estimated by a leaked memo from the US Department of Homeland Security to cost some 21.6 billion dollars, particularly if the monies will be raised mainly on the back of remittances sent to small Central American and Caribbean countries. Moreover, despite the threat of penalties, people will inevitably find ways to evade the fee by increasing their use of informal channels for sending remittances.

4. It could destabilise the US’ backyard which is contrary to US strategic homeland security interests.

With many of the region’s economies already threatened by de-risking, elevated debt levels and high unemployment, this proposed Bill is another worrying development. Although I do not believe the fee will stop the US-based Caribbean diaspora from remitting money to their loved ones, it may make it more difficult for them to do so as frequently as they normally do, which could have social and economic implications for the most remittance-dependent economies.

The Caribbean diaspora community in the US is an important source of remittance flows to the Region. According to a World Bank Migration and Development Brief released this month, stronger US job growth and a stronger US dollar were major reasons why the LAC Region was the only region to register an increase (6.9 percent) in remittance flows, with a total of $73 billion inflows in 2016. This is in contrast to the global landscape where remittances to developing countries in 2016 declined for the second consecutive year in a row.

Haiti and Honduras are the two most remittance dependent countries in the LAC Region and rank among the most remittance-dependent economies in the world, among countries for which data are available. Data provided in the previously mentioned World Bank Report show that in 2016 remittance inflows were equivalent to 27.8% of GDP for Haiti, 18.4% of GDP for Honduras, 17.6% of GDP for Jamaica, 17.2% of GDP for El Salvador,  and 8.6% of GDP for Guyana. For Belize it was 5% and Dominica, 4.6% of GDP.

A 2010 Report released by the Bank of Jamaica entitled “Remittances to Jamaica: Findings from a National Survey of Remittance Recipients” revealed that “more than half of the remittances sent back to Jamaica come from the US” and found that “remittances are an essential source of financing to many Jamaican recipients, which is used to supplement household income for necessities such as food, utilities and education”.

Successive US administrations have generally recognised that an economically and socially stable Caribbean region was in the US’ strategic homeland security interests. This is why the US government through its various economic and military aid programmes has poured millions of dollars into assisting Caribbean countries on issues such as crime, border security, among other things.

Besides the hardship that could be caused at the micro-level, a reduction in remittance inflows due to higher costs could have poverty alleviation and crime reduction implications and could have a destabilising effect on those economies and societies which are the most dependent on them. The same Bank of Jamaica report noted that “remittances to Jamaica have become an important source of foreign exchange and balance of payments support”.

Due to the paucity of official remittance data for many Caribbean countries, the importance of remittances to LAC economies is still underestimated and its micro and macro-economic importance to Caribbean economies is likely higher than currently measured.

How should we respond?

The bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations on April 21, 2017 and will need to be debated and passed by both chambers of Congress before being sent to the President for signature into law.

Latin American and Caribbean governments, along with their diplomatic representatives and the diaspora, should lobby against the passage of this bill by engaging in discussions with Congressional and other officials on the serious economic and social impact any potentially significant decline in remittance inflows could have on remittance-dependent countries in the Region, and the spin-off negative effect this could have on the US homeland.

To view the text of the proposed Bill, please see here.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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