Report Finds Immigrants in U.S. Sent Home $138 Billion in 2016

Money wired from America to foreign countries made up a quarter of global remittances; Mexico was top destination

Immigrants in the United States in 2016 sent home more than $138 billion — a sum that exceeds the entire gross domestic product of Kuwait — according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

That sum accounted for about a quarter of the $574 billion that migrants in countries around the world sent to friends and relatives in their home nations.

The U.S received only about $6.5 billion in money sent by people living in other countries, according to the Pew report. The research organization estimates global remittances based on a statistical model developed by the World Bank.

“It’s a staggering number,” said immigration reform activist Chris Chmielenski, marveling at the $138.2 billion that immigrants wire out of the United States.

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Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, noted that an unknown number of those remittances came from immigrants living and working illegally in the United States.

“Those are jobs that, in theory, could be going to unemployed Americans, and that money could stay stateside,” he said.

[lz_table title=”Sending Money Home” source=”Pew Research Center”]Top destinations for money sent outside the U.S. by immigrants
Mexico,$28.1 billion
China,$15.4 billion
India,$10.7 billion
Philippines,$10.5 billion
Guatemala,$6.8 billion
Vietnam,$6.7 billion
Nigeria,$5.7 billion
El Salvador,$4.2 billion
Dominican Republic,$4.1 billion
Honduras,$3.4 billion
All countries,$138.165 billion

The Pew report indicates that Mexico is the number-one destination for money sent abroad. In 2016, residents of that country received $28.1 billion. That was far more than the number-two country, China, where $15.4 billion headed. India ($10.7 billion), the Philippines ($10.5 billion), and Guatemala ($6.8 billion) rounded out the top five.

Chmielenski said he believes those remittances were a factor in complaints by some countries whose citizens will have to return after the Trump administration decided to revoke Temporary Protected Status, a program that allows foreigners to live and work in the U.S. while their home countries recover from man-made or natural disasters.

“They couldn’t imagine not having that money flowing into their country,” he said.

Matthew O’Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said the remittances also undercut the argument of mass immigration advocates that migrants are a net benefit to the country.

“That is a very effective way to pay for a wall … [and] for technological innovations.”

“I don’t know any organization other than FAIR has taken a look at remittances and put it in a cost-benefit analysis,” he said.

The massive sums of cash leaving the country also lends support for an idea floated by President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign — taxing remittances to pay for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Doing so could be a way for Trump to fulfill his campaign promise of making Mexico — at least indirectly — pay for the wall.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) sponsored a bill in March that would slap a 2 percent tax on all money transfers from the United States to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.

If Rogers expanded the idea to include all transfers to countries outside of the United States, it would generate $2.76 billion, based on the 2016 remittance totals.

“Over 10 years, there it is,” Chmielenski said. “There’s your wall.”

O’Brien agreed: “That is a very effective way to pay for a wall … [and] for technological innovations.”

One use for extra revenue, O’Brien said, would be to compensate airports for the cost of installing equipment that allows customs officials to use biometric data to track foreigners entering and leaving the United States. The 9/11 Commission recommended such a system as a security measure, but the federal government has yet to follow through.

Related: Bill to Make Mexicans (and Others) Pay for Border Wall Languishes

O’Brien said the money transfer data raise other questions. For instance, he said, there is concern that money sent abroad could prop up hostile regimes. In 2016, according to Pew, $328 million in remittances went to people in Iran. Venezuelans received $99 million. And Syrians got $37 million.

“We’re actually serving as a safety valve for many different places that are our enemies,” he said.

What’s more, O’Brien said, money sent by immigrants in America could help facilitate more immigration to the United States by helping foreigners pay the fees and travel costs necessary to relocate.

“To what extent is it funding chain migration? …It may very well be a circular effect,” he said.

America’s Voice, an organization that advocates for immigration, argued on its website last month that disrupting money transfers to impoverished countries “is bad for regional stability and U.S. national security” and would “further destabilize fragile countries in our neighborhood.”

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

(photo credit, article image: Western Union money transfer in Hong Kong, CC BY 2.0, by Monito – Money Transfer Comparison)