As Travel Ban Looms, Remitly Helps Immigrants Send Money, Share Stories

In the face of stepped-up immigration enforcement and ongoing legal battles over the Trump administration’s attempts to ban travelers from several majority Muslim nations, many businesses are taking stronger public positions in support of immigrants.

The tech industry, with many immigrants in its ranks, has been among the most vocal, providing both rhetorical and legal support in court cases that have successfully blocked the travel bans.

One fast-growing Seattle startup has a closer relationship with immigrants than most. Global money transfer platform Remitly helped people—mostly immigrants—send some $2 billion to friends and family in Mexico, India, China, the Philippines, and several other countries in Central and South America last year.

The company and its co-founder and CEO Matt Oppenheimer have been consistent advocates for immigrants, and immigration policy reform. Last summer, in the heat of a presidential campaign fueled by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, Oppenheimer joined the Partnership for a New American Economy in releasing a report highlighting immigrants’ economic contributions in the state of Washington.

Oppenheimer spoke out against a plan floated by the Trump campaign to coerce Mexico into paying for a proposed southern border wall by requiring money transfer companies to verify the lawful residency of anyone seeking to wire money outside the U.S. The idea was that this would prevent people without legal residency from sending money home, cutting off a vital inflow to Mexico’s economy and compelling the Mexican government to pay for the wall, which Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has flatly refused to do.

There’s no sign the Trump administration is moving forward on the threat. But in targeting remittances, it was indeed going after an essential capital flow that Remitly and its competitors enable. The U.S.-to-Mexico remittance corridor was the largest in the world, accounting for some $25.2 billion in 2015, according to World Bank estimates.

Remitly began a social media marketing campaign last month, called #WhyISend, asking its customers to share their stories. Many have obliged, tweeting out images of young families, educational accomplishments, aging parents, and messages of love, longing, sacrifice, and support.

Oppenheimer notes that the immigration system has been broken for a long time, and the issue has always been sensitive. He acknowledges that the pressure has mounted since the election.

“I think it’s been more heated recently and that’s why we have given our customers a platform to share their amazing stories, which we felt like was missing from the dialogue,” Oppenheimer says in an interview with Xconomy. “But when you really get to know our customers’ stories, it’s much harder to kind of blame them for things that, I think, are not even connected to them.”

Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer says he was inspired to build a startup in the remittances business because of the impact these global, person-to-person money transfers have on people’s lives. The majority of people sending remittances from developed to developing countries do so to help their families with basic needs, such as housing and food, he says.

“If you solve the problem, it’s multiples larger than foreign aid, and it’s coming from a family member, so there’s real meaning and sustainability to that that I was drawn to,” he says.

Oppenheimer has said that Remitly’s strategy for winning away customers from incumbent remittances companies centers on competitive fees and trust. I asked him whether earning trust in the current climate means offering this kind of explicit support.

“Our promise to uphold and honor our customers when they’re feeling scared or they’re feeling uncertain—I think it’s more important than ever to do that now,” Oppenheimer says.

Remitly and its competitors in the global remittances business could face a tough test if the Trump administration follows through on its proposal to use them as a way to hold hostage a significant portion of remittances to Mexico.

Oppenheimer says that Remitly, like its competitors, is already required to gather data on people sending money through its service under “know your customer” regulations. He hasn’t seen any specific proposal to force them to undertake legal residency verification yet. If it comes to pass, he says, “we’ll watch closely.”

It might seem obvious that you’d take pro-immigrant positions if most of your company’s customers were immigrants, as is the case at Remitly. Oppenheimer says there’s been no backlash to the #WhyISend campaign. Indeed, the company’s mission is often part of what attracts job applicants. (Remitly has more than 250 employees worldwide, including 100 in Seattle, and plans to move to larger offices later this year to accommodate continued growth.)

But what about at larger businesses, which serve everyone? Groups have called for boycotts of Starbucks over its pro-immigrant, pro-refugee positions, and before that, over its support for gay marriage. Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz took a tough question toward the end of the coffee giant’s shareholder meeting earlier this week.

“Why were you willing to have Starbucks’ reputation take a beating by attacking President Trump’s executive order, when you lacked the courage to speak out against the Obama-Clinton travel ban?” asked Justin Danhof, a lawyer with the National Center for Public Policy Research, according to reporting from the meeting by KUOW. (As KUOW reporter David Hyde notes, a slowdown in Iraqi refugee visa processing under the Obama Administration in 2011 was not comparable to the Trump travel bans.)

Schultz, who has been talked about as a potential candidate for public office himself, reframed the issue.

“None of the things that we have tried to do as a company is based on politics, but it’s based on principle and our core beliefs,” Schultz said.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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