The Global Immigrant Experience

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Mt. Kisco, New York
October 22, 2010

Thank you, Agnes. It’s a pleasure to be here this evening. I also want to thank Barbara Jackson, your Board Chair, and Sue Taub and Barbara Cochran who have chaired this wonderful event tonight. And of course, to my sister Carola, who all of you know well. Our mother is also here, and she certainly deserves thanks at every possible opportunity.

Carola often talks about the amazing group of women-the Friends of Neighbors Link — and how they along with everyone in this room is key this organization’s success. So it’s truly an honor to be here with you. In fact, I feel like we’re family already. I have obviously followed this organization for some time — for family connections of course, but also because its mission is close to my heart.

Tonight I’d like to share with you some of my own story — which includes both personal and professional reflections on Immigration, and indeed has brought me to my current position as the highest-ranking Latina in the history of the United States Department of State.

The first chapter of my story begins in Bolivia, where my mother and father raised Carola and me, along with our seven brothers and sisters. Nine of us children total. So now you understand why I thank my mother at every opportunity.

In Bolivia, we attended a Catholic school, where the nuns were very stringent about our studies. But, in those days the English program was not a priority. So when we moved to Washington, I was 12 and my two best English words were “pencil” and “rubber”. You can imagine how helpful these were when trying to make friends on the playground.

Fast forward about ten years, and I had not only mastered the English language, but I literally got a Master’s in British Literature.

In the years between the playground and my dissertation on Keats, my siblings and I lived a life somewhere between our Bolivian customs and those of a suburban American family. In the end, we each found careers that would likewise balance these two worlds. Carola, of course, is the poster child.

My own career has been in the field of international economic development. At ACCION International — where I worked for 25 years, the last ten as CEO — we built banks for the poor. I started with ACCION in Honduras, fulfilling an urge to return to my Latin roots. It was during this time that a phenomenon called microfinance was turning traditional notions of banking and development on their heads.

Many of the people ACCION wanted to help lived in sprawling cities with no education, few skills, limited connections, and a negligible support system. Or they lived off of the land in rural areas with little infrastructure. In the absence of employment, they resorted to building their own tiny businesses — from the corner kiosk in the village, to banging old metal into pots and pans, to cooking and selling meals on a sidewalk.

It wasn’t long before ACCION and other pioneers in the field started to see the poor through a new lens. No longer were they helpless. Instead, we saw them as resourceful. And smart. And creative. And determined. Much like the immigrants helped by Neighbors Link, they would find ways to build enterprises even in overwhelming circumstances.

The only thing they needed was access to capital that could help them grow. A couple hundred dollars — sometimes even less — to invest in an idea and make it happen.

Since those early days, an estimated 90 million people worldwide have access to microcredit, and many millions more have their own savings accounts. With credit and savings, microfinance is expanding to include a wide array of financial services for the poo r—remittances, payment services, insurance, housing loans and the list goes on. It’s now so expansive that we are seeing a trend towards full financial inclusion — in which all people have access to a suite of productive, tailored financial products to help them work their way out of poverty.

But this phenomenon — banking for the poor — did not happen overnight. In fact, the words “banking” and “the poor” had hardly ever been placed in the same sentence before. No self-respecting traditional bank would make a loan to a poor person who had no collateral.

Part of what broke the mold, allowing microfinance to be not only successful but also sustainable was a new lending methodology that used character as collateral.

Let me say that again, because I think it’s especially important in the context of why we are all here tonight. Microfinance helped us understand — and bank on — the character of the poor and marginalized. We built our business on the innate potential and value of every person — poor vendors, rural farmers, new citizens, recent immigrants, whoever. In other words, we all believe in using character as collateral. Success is not dependent on where you were born or the assets you have accumulated. Instead, success is dependent upon your determination and creativity.

I will never forget one of the first clients I met back in the early 1980s — an onion vendor of all things. She woke up at 3:30 am every morning and went to the main market where the trucks came in from the highlands with vegetables. She would get the onions for her stall from one of the intermediaries who charged her a huge rate. When she learned of ACCION’s micro-loans, she looked incredulous and asked “do you mean that you would lend me $150 just because I say I will pay it back?” She never went back to the intermediary and soon was selling much more than just onions.

Increased access to financial services helps people, like the onion lady, see themselves differently within their communities and societies. Their children have better education and health care. It is especially evident in the lives of women—mothers, sisters, daughters — all of whom are empowered to make economic decisions that improve the situations of their families and communities. In short, they have gained more control over their lives.

Of course, many of the conditions that drive entrepreneurship among the poor are the same as those that drive many poor people to cross borders. Conditions like:

  • lack of access to social services;
  • poor housing and nutrition;
  • endemic poverty, and
  • the pursuit of a better livelihood.

Immigration is a journey that hopefully, for those served by Neighbors Link, ends with opportunity. They are drawn to this country for the hope that it represents. And upon arrival, they contribute to our economy, our food, music, culture, and the very tapestry that makes up American life. With the help of organizations like Neighbors Link, these immigrants raise their children with the richness of their native cultures, while integrating into American society and institutions.

At the core of this society — the society that we all strive for — is a key concept. Inclusion. It drives microfinance around the world, and it drives organizations like Neighbors Link. Whether it is social inclusion — helping immigrants integrate in a foreign culture — or financial inclusion — recasting long-held notions of banking, we are recognizing the value of each human being and his or her contribution to society.

Fortunately, we live in a time when the President of the United States and the Secretary of State share that vision. And they not only share it, but elevate and promote it in every avenue of US foreign policy.

Foreign policy under the Obama Administration is often described with the three D's — development, diplomacy, and defense. At the State Department, we work with USAID to advance the first two, making sure that they are in line with our national security objectives. In this new era of foreign policy, we understand the pursuit of these three D's with a shared context and rationale: to improve lives, fight poverty, expand rights and opportunities, strengthen communities, and promote democratic institutions and governance. In doing so, we advance global stability, improve our own security, and project our values and leadership in the world.

Secretary Clinton has also called it “smart power” — and it is underpinned by several key understandings, among them:

  • That we cannot build a stable, global economy when millions of people are left on the sidelines of globalization;
  • That we cannot advance democracy and human rights when hunger and poverty threaten to undermine the good governance and rule of law needed to make those rights real;
  •  And that we cannot solve the great security, governance, environmental, and economic challenges of our time without the participation of women at all levels of society.

It is in this context that I have joined the Obama Administration and Secretary Clinton’s management team at the State Department. As Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, I oversee foreign relations on a wide-array of transnational issues. That is, issues which have transcended national borders to demand the attention of many countries. Our policy objectives have sought to protect human rights; improve the lives of refugees and vulnerable populations; promote democratic principles and processes; and advance the Administration’s active science and health agendas, including climate change and pandemic diseases.

Of these important foreign policy priorities, I want to highlight two areas that overlap with immigration, or more specifically, the movement of vulnerable people. The first is the condition of refugees and internally displaced persons around the world. The second is the scourge of human trafficking.

The United States takes seriously the condition of refugees around the world. Millions of refugees – mostly women and children – have lived in exile for more than a decade in 30 protracted situations around the world. Beyond the humanitarian imperative of helping those in need, we know that assisting refugees also promotes international peace and security. Refugees, like voluntary immigrants, are capable of contributing to their home economies and communities. The challenge is giving them access to education, health services, and business training. I witnessed this firsthand at the refugee camps in northern Kenya, where Somali families are now witnessing the birth of a fourth generation — in a camp that was supposed to be temporary.

From Kenya to Colombia to Palestine, the United States is providing critical assistance to vulnerable populations, fostering regional stability and security throughout the world. And here in the United States, we support the integration of the 75,000 refugees admitted annually.

Of course, vulnerable populations exist beyond those confined to refugee camps. Around the globe, we face a myriad of protection challenges: gender-based violence, restricted freedom of movement, and personal security and rights.

Among these challenges, especially among vulnerable populations is human trafficking. It is the shadow side of immigration — in which the choice to pick up and migrate is not a question of free will but of modern slavery and repression.

Much of human trafficking is driven by cross-border demand for cheap or free labor — an unfortunate consequence of economic motives in a globalized world. But this is not just an economic phenomenon. It is a global, growing trend in the violation of human rights.

As international business and trade deepens the process of globalization, the bottom line of business too often eclipses our standards for human rights and the protection of vulnerable people. We cannot allow this shadow practice to flourish.

The United States is committed to fighting this terrible practice. One of the tools at our disposal is the Annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which assesses the status of trafficking in countries around the world, and respective governments effort at combating it. Of course, it’s also important to recognize our own faults, which is why the United States was included in this year’s rankings for the first time ever. Within our borders, as in many nations, women and children are held against their will; people are forced to harvest crops; immigrants held in domestic servitude.

We know that we cannot fight this reality alone. Partnering with the private sector is essential to reducing the demand for human trafficking. So we are working with organizations at home and abroad, leveraging resources and expertise across sectors and value chains. This means scrubbing modern slavery out of the supply chains that create our every-day products — from the strawberries we eat to the clothes that we wear. It is incumbent on both government and business to ensure that every hand that touches the products of our daily lives does so willingly, with fair pay and good conditions.

So, it’s clear that there are many sides to immigration, among them the two aspects that I’ve talked about tonight: First, the voluntary pursuit of a better livelihood, often driven by inequity and lack of access. And second, the condition of vulnerable populations, forced into migration by conflict, disaster, or criminals in the shadows of society.

There is little question that these are difficult questions. And we will continue to encounter difficult times in the pursuit of their solutions. For instance, the passage of the law in Arizona, which the Federal government has challenged. Or with community discrimination of new immigrants or citizens. But one day, one step at a time, with intention, we will advance our goals, our shared values.

My friend Kerry Kennedy once told me that Neighbors Link had shifted this community’s perception of immigrants. Having worked in microfinance in which we overcame traditional notions of society, I know how hard it can be to shift such long-held perceptions. But I am encouraged by our progress on both fronts. In fact, it is not so hard, in a room like this, surrounded by wonderful people, to imagine a society that is defined by its inclusion rather than its exclusion.

I am also reminded of a story from my career in microfinance. Many years ago, I was taking a delegation of business school professors to Guatemala. On one of our visits to microenterprises, we met with Esperanza, a tiny woman of Mayan descent who made shoes in a corner of her one room house with a dirt floor.

Esperanza welcomed us in and proudly showed us her businesses, which probably produced 20 pairs of shoes a week. After a few minutes, one of the professors asked me to translate “Can you ask her what her unit cost of production is?”

I turned to him and said, “No I can’t do that. She will be embarrassed in front of their two daughters because she doesn’t know.”

He insisted persistently, until apologetically I asked: “Dona Esperanza, this professor from the north wants to know if you know — if you can tell him what your unit cost of production is.”

She looked up at him, and answered with a strong, assured voice, “Of course I know, it is 18 quetzales (Guatemalan currency) a pair, and please come and I will show how much it is at each step of production.”

I felt so humbled, but I was also thrilled! This woman, with a little capital, was able to do things she never before imagined. She didn’t have formal training, but she figured out how to create and sell a product – at a profit. Her sense of self-worth, of dignity, of empowerment spilled over into the roles her daughters, as she juggled running a business and taking care of them.

To this day, I imagine her mentoring other young women in her community, perhaps taking the lead in demanding water and sanitation facilities from the Municipality, and telling her daughters that of course they should go to college, even though she didn’t finish the third grade.

Esperanza reminded me that I should never make assumptions about the capabilities or potential of the people I meet — more often than not they will surprise me, and not only that, they will likely have something important to teach me. But this is not just a sentimental anecdote. It also speaks to the power of the human spirit. That is why we are here, and it is why we will continue working to ensure that every person, vulnerable and otherwise, is valued for their capability and ingenuity.

Thank you.