Immigrants’ homeland burials shrouded with costs |

Immigrants’ homeland burials shrouded with costs

Michelle Garcia

NEW YORK – Ever so carefully, the women wrapped tin cans with the newspaper photo of the dead man. He had been a brother to one, a roommate to another. But this was not the time to pray for his soul. Amalia Romano and her friends stepped onto a busy boulevard in Brooklyn where sidewalk vendors specialize in mango con chile and fresh juices, and they begged.Their pitch went like this: Jose Luis Romano is dead. Street thugs robbed him of 10 bucks and his life. We need $3,000 to send his body home to Mexico.”In circumstances like that, shame doesn’t exist,” said Amalia Romano, 32, her brother’s sole relative in the United States. “His wife, his children are in Mexico. He should be there so they can visit his grave and at least put a flower.”A majority of the new immigrant dead are young and working-class, and few carry life insurance. Of 360 Mexicans who left New York City in caskets last year, most were between 20 and 40, according to Yolanda Castro of the Mexican Consulate’s legal protection department.Yet it is cheaper to return bodies to the homeland than to bury them here. A funeral and burial in New York City runs about $9,000.But last year, as the number of Mexicans leaving the United States in coffins reached 9,000, the Mexican government slashed aid for repatriating the dead by nearly half, to about $3.5 million, according to the Mexican Foreign Ministry. To qualify, the family must prove it lacks the resources to pay.Immigrant advocates are demanding that Mexico and other foreign countries provide more aid.Oscar Chacon, a Salvadoran by birth and director of Enlaces America, an immigrants’ rights group, estimates Salvadoran immigrants in the United States send back $260 million every year, pouring $33.8 million in tax revenues into government coffers in El Salvador.Immigrants often begin by pressuring government-owned or -subsidized airlines for reduced prices. Twenty years ago, a collective of working-class Irish in the Bronx waged a campaign to force Aer Lingus to reduce prices.John McDonagh, 51, a taxi driver and a host of Radio Free Eireann on the Pacifica network, used his show to rip Aer Lingus for charging $2.50 per pound to ship the dead. “I’d go on the air and give the price of cold cuts at the deli to show how much they were charging,” he said. “We were comparing roast beef and cheese to the Irish body.”Aer Lingus agreed to waive the charges for indigent dead Irish.Other foreign governments have responded by encouraging their immigrants to find private-sector solutions. For $50, a Los Angeles entrepreneur promises to collect a body at the morgue and deliver it anywhere in Latin America.In New York, earlier Italian, Jewish and Greek immigrants transformed their burial societies into credit unions and informal health insurance providers. “It’s a one-time expense that had to be socialized because few people had the money on hand,” said Philip Kasinitz, an immigration expert at the City University of New York.Bangladeshis have fallen back on that communal approach. On a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn, midday prayers ended with 200 men dressed in crocheted skullcaps and Punjabi gowns circling a casket outside a mosque. They chanted their farewell before a trip from the Little Bangladesh neighborhood in Brooklyn to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The family of the elderly woman will bear none of the $3,000 cost for the airfare, the funeral service, the coffin and the burial.Members of the Bangladesh Society of New York each contribute $2 a month and when their turn comes, the committee takes care of the expenses. The government-owned airline, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, offers free transport for the indigent dead. And, if you are a member of the organization, Mofizur Rahman, a leader in the society, said with a grin, “everyone comes to your funeral.”There were just a few dozen people at Jose Luis Romano’s funeral. Romano, 40, worked as a dry-cleaning operator and sent most of his salary to his family in Mexico. His sister hired a videographer with the money she scraped together from friends to capture mariachis performing “Amor Eterno,” the Mexican farewell ballad.Vail, Colorado

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