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Surveying Immigrants in the US in Stressful Times

In the fall of 2018, we collaborated with the IDB Lab on a cross-sectional survey of the remittance habits of 2,145 migrants from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Mexico in three US cities (Los Angeles, Miami and New York). The study "Remittances from the U.S. to Latin America and the Caribbean: Following the Money Journey" offers a deep dive into the "Money Journey" of these cross-border transactions and highlights some of the ongoing barriers to digital adoption. Click here or on the link below for the study. While the results are fascinating, I would argue that the execution of this study was even more eye opening. Charged with interviewing migrants from communities with large numbers of undocumented residents, we were concerned, and rightly so, about respondent's reticence, and even fear of speaking with us. Other worries included the risk of biasing our sample, and the time constraints related to completing surveys before the busy year-end holiday season.

We tackled the challenge of fear with a few strategies. First, we hired surveyors who lived in the communities we were working in, many of them were from the same countries of origins, all understood how to navigate the delicate issue of immigrant status, all spoke Spanish. Additionally, we met respondents in trusted places, which vetted us for them. We surveyed Colombian, Dominican, Salvadoran and Mexican respondents in their consulates, local barber shops, beauty salons, restaurants and events in Miami, Los Angeles and New York with the explicit permission of the establishments. The Consulates of Mexico in New York, with whom we have worked in the past, generously opened the door to us and also introduced us to the Consulate in Los Angeles and to the Colombian Consulate in New York, for example.

We addressed the risk of bias in our sample with a few strategies. First, we stayed away from remittance outlets for surveys. Interviewing people who were in the vicinity of a remittance outlet would have biased our research potentially in favor of cash sending through agents. More importantly, boosting our response rate was key to having a broad sample of respondents. To achieve this, we offered attractive incentives to respondents. In New York, these were Metrocards for rides on public transportation. In other cities, we offered gift cards to local retailers. Additionally, we partnered with local merchants so that respondents in beauty parlors and barbers received discounts on their haircut or treatment if they agreed to speak to us. In Los Angeles and Miami, local restaurants were key. We offered free pupusas to Salvadorans in Los Angeles for answering our survey. In Miami, we offered Colombians a free desert such as brevas con papaya at a renown Colombian restaurant. These incentives were immediately tangible, attractive and simple for the respondents as well as the hosts. It was a win win. Another method for increasing our response rate was eliminating some sensitive questions from the survey. In the past, for example, we have asked people of their documentation status. Given the difficult political environment in the US for migrants, we chose to eliminate this question as well as any personal identifying questions (name, address, phone), so that respondents felt that their data would be safe with us. Finally, we used our signature EA Consultants method- being NICE! Our wonderful surveyors were screened to be friendly, approachable, and respectful before anything else. We supported teamwork to ensure a collegial and non-competitive environment among the three city teams and we emphasized the importance of being nice to respondents, which underpins all of our work at EA.

Technology was a key tool for us throughout the execution of the study. We describe above what looks like a high-touch boots-on-the-ground initiative. While that was certainly the case, technology enabled us to do this effectively and efficiently over a mere six weeks of surveying. Incentives for local merchants were reimbursed immediately via VENMO to secure merchants' trust that we would keep our word. Survey data was collected remotely via our Mobile Data Unit and monitored constantly to detect potential problems and track progress. If one community was reaching its targets, we could rapidly mobilize surveyors to the next community. Surveyors were supervised by on-the-ground staff but also formed WhatsApp groups that allowed us to stay close to their experiences and react accordingly. When surveyors seemed frustrated, we upped incentives by creating special daily bonuses, for example. When they were happy, we all participated in congratulating them on their great work (the clap emojis' hands on Whatsapp were burning!). When the Miami team was deployed, we sent them messages, photos, and stories from the New York team (which had begun two weeks prior) to encourage them. WhatsApp kept us all close, despite our being in three distant corners of the country.

Our team loved participating in this work. It allowed us to get closer to the communities and to collaborate closely with them to make it all happen. If you have further questions about our methods for this study, please feel free to contact me at

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