Rodolfo Hernandez Villasenor, an East Los Angeles iron caster, walked into a bank recently and unfolded a neat $150 stack of bills to send home to his mother and five siblings in Mexico.
Hernandez, who immigrated to the United States 26 years ago, took the money out of his monthly $2,000 salary to help his family pay for tamales, hot chocolate and other fixings for Christmas and New Year's Eve.
"They will use it to pay for a little dinner to get the whole family together," said Hernandez, 53, whose family lives in the Mexican state Michoacan.
It was just one of millions of such transactions conducted each year in the United States.
Money transfers from Mexican immigrants working in the United States to relatives back home reached a record $10 billion in 2002, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization in Washington. The amount was up $800 million from the previous year.
The transfers, or remittances as they are officially known, are Mexico's second-largest source of income, behind oil exports.
Workers say their cross-border transfers increased this year because the Mexican economy is in even worse shape than the U.S. economy, leaving many Mexican families desperate for income. The average wire transfer sent by Hispanic immigrants is between $200 and $300.
Jose Aguiniga, 43, a tire company salesman from Los Angeles, said that for the holidays he sent his mother $250 and his five sisters a total of $125.
"No matter what you send, the economy in Mexico will still be bad," he said.
Remittances to all of Latin America from the United States doubled during the second half of the 1990s.
The amount sent to Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua - nations that receive almost half their money from remittances - is expected to total $14.2 billion in 2002, according to the Pew report.
Economists say the transfers do not hurt the U.S. economy.
"It's a mistake to think of it as a drain without thinking that they are also going to be using that money in Mexico to be buying goods and services that are coming from the U.S." said Cecilia Conrad, a professor of economics at Pomona College.
Among the forces driving the increase in remittances are a 60 percent rise in the U.S. Hispanic population during the 1990s and the declining cost of wire transfers, caused in part by increased competition among banks and services such as Western Union. The average fee is about 10 percent of the amount sent.
Tighter immigration controls after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also have made it harder for many Mexican laborers living illegally in the United States to go back across the border to deliver money or presents in person.
Lorenzo Escalona, a 29-year-old fish market vendor from Huntington Park who sent $300 to his parents and nine siblings in Mexico City, is still waiting for his green card and will not risk going home for the holidays.
"I'd rather take the money home in person," he said. But "I have to wait for my immigration status to be resolved."
By Sandra Marquez By Sandra Marquez
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