Immigrant Remittances and the Law

Written by Ezra Rosser

The New York Times recently published a story — Norimitsu Onishi, Toiling Far From Home for Philippine Dreams, New York Times, Sept. 18, 2010 — that gives me a chance, really an excuse, to blog about an issue that interests me a great deal: immigrant remittances.  The New York Times has to its credit covered this issue quite well.  Although slightly dated, a 2007 interactive graphic — Snapshot: Global Migration — includes eye-opening global maps of money sent home (the N.Y. Times’ language, not mine) by immigrants, and the related percentage of GDP that amounts to for receiving countries.  Perhaps the most in depth Times article on the topic also focused on the Philippines and is a great place to start for those not familiar with the topic of immigrant remittances: Jason DeParle, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves, New York Times, Apr. 22, 2007.

Lame graphic -- sorry -- because I have not taken a Western Union photo!

The legal academy is in the midst of what optimistically might be called a mini-wave of writing on immigrant remittances.  Adam Feibelman has recently published, The Very Uneasy Case Against Remittances: An Ex Ante Perspective, 88 N.C. L. Rev. 1771 (2010).  That one article is enough for a mini-wave in this area considering how under-explored remittances have been by legal academics.  But Heather Hughes also has a book chapter on remittances coming out soon.

My own article, Immigrant Remittances, 41 Conn. L. Rev. 1 (2008), is a bit older and is less technical than the book chapter and, given the newest article, perhaps could be characterized as The Uneasy Case For Remittances.  In it, I argue against what I call institutional capture of the remittance phenomenon.  The focus is on remittances to Latin America and in particular to El Salvador.  Remittances raise a number of questions about immigration, law and development, family law, and poverty alleviation…

The mini-wave I have been describing above is dwarfed by the wave of articles related to immigrant remittances that are coming out of non-law fields and being produced by major institutions such as the World Bank and IMF.  I have found the work of Manuel Orozco at the Inter-American Dialogue to be very helpful (the Dialogue’s website allows you to search their working papers/publications easily), especially on surveys of sending and receiving household members.

This month’s Times story on remittances (above) does highlight the family disunity associated with international migration, but like most coverage of remittances seems to imply/state that remittances are to blame for these separations that leave children to be raised by their extended family and not necessarily their parents.  The danger in such characterizations is it risks mistaking an aspect of labor migration (remittances) for the cause of these separations and missing the bigger picture.  Such hardships and dislocations are tied to (1) limits placed on the migration of labor, (2) associated limits on non-worker family members being unified with their migrant family members, and fundamentally (3) unequal distribution of opportunities (often tied to prior colonialism or other causes of slow growth in countries of origin).  Migration to higher wage countries and the ability to send back remittances provide individuals a way to care for family — children, spouses, parents, etc. — when they cannot find jobs or ways to make a living in their country of origin.  But these are complicated issues and I only hope that family law scholars, law and development folks, etc, contribute to la ola.