By SAMANTHA HENRY, Associated Press
ELIZABETH, N.J. (AP) — Foreign governments that once viewed expatriates largely as a source of revenue just for the money they sent home to their families are starting to focus more on helping their citizens succeed in America — so they can invest more in their homeland.
Colombian officials say an informational fair they are holding this weekend at the South American nation's consulate in New York will feature, for the first time, not just Colombian companies, but also American banks, U.S. universities and New York City government programs.
"Our government and those of other countries are starting to realize the importance of helping their communities get ahead in the United States," said Janeth Gomez, owner of a small travel, check-cashing and package mailing agency in the Little Colombia section of Elizabeth, 15 miles from Manhattan.
Colombians living abroad in the U.S. and other countries send home an estimated $3.9 billion dollars a year, according to the World Bank. But the government would like to benefit more, so it has joined the ranks of nations with large immigrant populations in the U.S. that have been reinventing how they interact with its citizens abroad.
Programs at the informational fair Saturday and Sunday include ones on investing money from New York in accounts back home; getting help for their children in applying to U.S. universities; and advice from the New York City government on health services, said Laura Montoya, spokeswoman for the consulate.
Mexico established a government institute in 2003 devoted to the needs of its population in the United States and elsewhere. India created a Ministry of Overseas Citizens in 2004 to solidify its homeland-diaspora connection. And governments from Poland to El Salvador have been studying ways to better serve, and entice investment from, citizens living outside the homeland.
With nearly a million people of Colombian origin in the U.S., an estimated 35 to 40 percent of them in the New York area, there is recognition that they are a growing constituency with the power to vote in presidential elections back home and elect a representative in the Colombian Congress.
Government outreach once focused on drawing Colombians back to their homeland, even if just for a visit, according to Maria Aysa-Lastra, an assistant sociology professor at Florida International University who has studied the Colombian model and other governments' efforts at diaspora outreach.
Those programs followed a huge migratory outflow in the late 1990s that was fueled by violence related to the narcotics trade and a civil conflict that ravaged Colombia. A tourism campaign with the slogan "The only risk you'll run is wanting to stay" featured initiatives like traveling safety caravans as the government tried to lure people back.
Now, the government is increasingly recognizing that even if an emigrant never returns to Colombia, helping them succeed in America — through better access to education, small-business grants, trade incentives with Colombia or closer social ties with influential immigrant leaders in the U.S. — has benefits for the home country.
"An organized diaspora is a very powerful tool for governments, because if the diaspora starts having political weight, they open doors for governments," Aysa-Lastra said.
Diasporas make an attractive constituency, Aysa-Lastra added, because the portion of a given population that choses to migrate often consists of people with the entrepreneurial drive, the capital and the adaptability to become an influential force in their adopted countries.
Those who become successful business owners, prominent members of society, influential community leaders or local office holders in the U.S., Aysa-Lastra said, form a class of "transnational immigrants" with a foot in both countries who are more likely to make philanthropic investments in Colombia or investments that go beyond sending money directly to one's family.
The Colombian government, through its consulates, is placing greater emphasis on outreaching to those influential community leaders, such as Gomez, owner of Christian's Travel in Elizabeth.
Gomez, who helps organize the annual Colombian Day parade and other cultural celebrations, said she has seen a change in the consulate's role in recent years and a shift in attitude on the part of government officials toward the immigrant population.
Traditionally viewed just as a place for paperwork such as visas and passports, a process that Gomez said often involved waiting in long lines and sometimes took days, the consulate has started listening more to people's concerns, responding with mobile services and a new satellite office in Newark last month to serve Colombians in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
They've also been contacting local leaders like Gomez to hear directly from them what kinds of services the community needs.
"I've seen the consulate much more active and involved in more issues," Gomez said in Spanish.
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