Immigrant communities address Y2K


HAMILTON HEIGHTS, N.Y. (Dec. 16, 1999) -- Leónidas Matos, a Dominican grocery worker who has lived in the New York for the past four years, heard an alarming Y2K-related rumor that made him doubt the security of his banked money.

"I was told by a licenciado (a term which refers to someone who has a college degree) that I needed to send my money to Santo Domingo before Dec. 31, 1999 because the noncompliance by the banks is such that we were risking losing our savings."

So Matos wired his money to a relative to deposit in a Dominican bank.

Such rumors began circulating in the Dominican community in northern Manhattan about six months ago, said Matos.

And as the Y2K rollover approaches, more people in immigrant communities in New York and elsewhere have grown increasingly concerned about non-compliant banks.

Computer consultant Antonia Perez, who works with financial institutions in the New York area, said that, although she had not observed an increase in overseas money wiring, she knows people are sending money home for safekeeping.

For example, "people are sending their savings and money with couriers or people back to the Dominican Republic for a service charge since they have come to believe that the Y2K bug will eat away their money in the New York banks," she said.

Worries about money security are among many issues immigrant communities are considering as the year 2000 approaches. Community leaders are concerned that Y2K makes people -- especially those unfamiliar with banking terminology or practices -- particularly vulnerable to scam artists urging them to wire money to unknown locations for safekeeping or to deposit funds in fraudulent accounts.

"To be frank, a great number of us in the Colombian community are very worried

about the financial scams that I have heard not only in the Dominican community but also in other immigrant communities," said Rosa Nora Matos, a Colombian

who lives in Jackson Heights, N.Y.

But many are finding accurate information and a measure of reassurance through their connection to churches and to their own community.

"I will now make sure that for the next two weeks we spread the word and discuss this at every event, mass and spiritual gathering," said Matos. "We need to protect each other and the community at large."

Major banks across the U.S. have spent millions of dollars to ensure Y2K compliance -- and millions more to reassure their customers that their money is safe. Banks and community leaders alike have urged people not to withdraw large sums of cash on New Year's because mass withdrawals could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy -- a cash crunch.

"It was not until I talked to a couple of my fellow brothers and sisters at one of our fellowship meetings about Y2K that I realized that I needed to take the time each meeting to remind them to make sure to check with the proper banking authorities of the state and not to listen to rumors about money evaporating," said Felicia Martinez, a preacher at Iglesia Monte Calvario in The Bronx.

Financial consultant Aristóteles Beriguete said that, for many immigrant communities, Y2K-related money worries stem from a general mistrust in financial institutions in the U.S. and in their home countries.

"A lot of people within our community -- Dominican -- decide to place substantial amounts underneath the mattress, in the closets, or in coffee cans," he said. "What I will advise them is to understand that financial institutions in this country can be reported if they do carry out fraudulent activities," he said.

Many local churches host support groups and information sessions to advise parishioners in immigrant communities about social, financial, and legal issues unique to them -- and Y2K is now among those issues.

Nina Romero, a member of the women's fellowship group Carismaticos Unidos and a resident of Washington Heights, N.Y., said the group has cautioned people not to succumb to Y2K rumors and hysteria.

When in doubt, "always check with the New York State Department of Banking and or talk to someone who is a local leader in your community," she said.

Renewed concerns have also recently surfaced regarding the compliance of U.S. drinking water providers and sewage treatment plants. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Y2K & Society jointly reported that over-treated tap water and sewage overflow could greet people in the year 2000 because the nation's 55,000 drinking water utilities and 16,000 publicly owned wastewater facilities are not prepared for Y2K.

The American Water Works Association disputed those findings, arguing that it members were well on the way to being prepared for Y2K.

Most Y2K experts still acknowledge that nobody can know for sure what will happen at the Y2K rollover.

But leaders of at least one post-Y2K program -- called Y2K-OK Sunday -- are thinking optimistically. On Y2K-OK Sunday -- Jan. 16 is the designated date for many churches -- congregations will be asked to turn in any unneeded items they collected in preparation for Y2K.

Churches will then distribute the collected items to appropriate groups -- food items to local food pantries, bottled water and batteries to disaster agencies, clothing and personal items to homeless shelters or refugee centers, and tools to self-development programs.

Though no one national program is coordinating Y2K-OK Sunday, the idea stemmed from the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Presbyterian Self-Development of People.

Posted December 16, 1999

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