Sending deceased immigrants home

Body repatriation is among the issues Nancy Savoca weaves into her 2003 film 'Dirt' about an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant.

KAI RYSSDAL: Those new Colorado restrictions on public assistance are pretty clear cut. No aid of any kind. In virtually any circumstance. But no matter where you are, cash can run short at emotional times. Hundreds, maybe thousands of immigrants die in the United States every year. Some will be buried here. Many will be sent back home. Funerals in the U.S. are expensive. But so is repatriating a body. As Alisa Roth reports from New York.


ALISA ROTH: Juan is a slight man with a long ponytail that hangs out from under his trucker's cap. Like most of New York's Mexican immigrants, he comes from Puebla, south of Mexico City. He asked not to be identified by his last name.

Juan works as a presser at a Korean-owned dry cleaners in Brooklyn. He's been here for three years. So he already knew what to do when he heard a cousin had died in a work-related accident in Los Angeles.
JUAN [interpreter]: You have to turn to friends, relatives, people from the same town. They're the only ones who can support us here.

That's financial support he's talking about. To collect enough money to send the body back to Mexico for burial.

JUAN [interpreter]: If you're buried in the US, who's going to visit your grave? Nobody. Of course, in Mexico, everybody's there. Your whole family. That's why you feel badly leaving your fellow Mexicans buried here in the US.

But it's hard to get a body to Mexico or just about anywhere else abroad. People say the cheapest funeral home in New York charges more than $3,000 to repatriate a body. Others charge $10,000. Among other things, flights are expensive. Suprisingly, it costs much more to fly a dead body than a live one. And there is a lot of paperwork involved. From collecting death certificates to getting permission from the consulate.

In any case, it's a lot of money for people who are earning minimum wage. Or less.

Consulates do help out occasionally. Local non-profits, too. Some people put collection boxes next to the cash registers in ethnic grocery stores. And many Spanish-language radio and TV stations run public service announcements asking help from the community.

But companies are starting to pick up on the idea that there's money to be made. And not just for the funeral homes or airlines.

Servicios Especiales Profesionales is the American branch of a Mexican insurance company. For $50, the company promises to repatriate your body from almost anywhere in the US to almost anywhere in Latin America if you die within the next five years. And you can renew in five-year increments after that until you die.

RAMIRO LOPEZ: Everybody thinks that they're eternal. Nobody thinks that they're going to die. Nobody wants to die, which is great.

Ramiro Lopez sells plans for Servicios Especiales. The company's not allowed to call its product insurance for legal reasons. But it uses some of the same scare tactics.

LOPEZ: We ask them, Are you ready? Tomorrow, you walk out, cross the street and you get hit by a car, lights out. Is your family . . . are they going to be able to come up with the $3,700 to $10,000 to take you back home?

He won't say how many policies the company's sold. But he says they're doing well. They've repatriated 60 bodies in the last two years, and it only costs the company about $5,000 apiece.

The funeral in the home country is the family's responsibility. But it costs considerably less than anything you can buy here. Lopez says the company's trying to appeal to the 40 million Latinos in the US, but he says he'll be happy if they can sell a thousand policies a year.

But the bigger question may be how sustainable the business really is. There was another form of insurance out there that you could get through phone cards. Buy a $10 phone card and besides the phone calls, you get a $1,000 towards repatriation of your body. As many as 10 cards could be combined to add up to a total of $10,000 toward repatriation costs.

But the phone card company recently stopped selling them, citing slow sales. The woman who answered the phone there says she thinks people were too superstitious to buy them.

Juan, the dry cleaner's assistant from Puebla, certainly isn't convinced about the whole concept.

JUAN [interpreter]: It's that nobody wants to think about this. You say I'm going to work in the US so I can have a better life. You never say, I'm going there to die. And if you end up dying while you're looking to make your life better, what are you going to do?

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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