WASHINGTON – It’s been exceedingly hard lately for Somali-Americans to wire cash back to families in their homeland after the main California-based bank that facilitated the bulk of the business halted Somalia transfers Feb. 7.
The bank stopped doing business in Somalia after the Treasury Department issued a cease-and-desist order last year because bank officials could not adequately prove all of the money being wired from the United States was going to legitimate sources.
Of the roughly 30,000 Twin Cities Somali-Americans, about 80 percent use money-service businesses to send money to the Horn of Africa, which is bereft of both a stable government and a banking system.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are concerned that the issue is creating an even less stable environment — both at home and abroad — and that sending money is a net positive to come from America in a deeply troubled place ridden with terrorist organizations.
Trouble is, the politicians may have a hard time getting anywhere.
The senators, along with Ellison and a few other House members, fired off letters asking for meetings at the State Department so they could explain that a seemingly small banking problem has the potential of escalating into a larger diplomatic one.
“Is there any doubt that this situation is grave and getting graver?” said Ellison, a Democrat representing Minneapolis. He noted that 40 percent of Somalia’s gross domestic product comes from banking remittances from abroad. “Do we really want a situation where we have a fragile state and we pull the rug out from under them at a time like this?”
A meeting last week with eight federal agencies and departments — including State and Treasury and the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission — did not go well, according to members in the meeting. The National Security Council did not even attend the meeting.
There was little said that gave Ellison hope that the bureaucrats wanted to find a solution. “When we asked them who was in charge, nobody was,” Ellison said. “They all had a piece of it, but no one took institutional responsibility for figuring this out.”
Franken echoed the sentiment. “I was extremely frustrated,” he said in a e-mail. “Every federal agency representative told us that they are concerned, and yet no one came to the table with specific solutions to get remittances flowing again right away.”
Several agencies did not respond to requests for comment, though Bryan Hubbard, at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, said he would let the politicians talk.
“We don’t comment on our conversations with the members of Congress,” he said.
Ellison said he asked whether there were any legislative solutions, some measure they could pass, that could help solve the problem.
“They said nothing,” he said. “They literally stared back at us with blank expressions, with no proposals.”
Ellison and Franken vowed to push the Obama administration more on solving the crisis, but it’s unclear what they can do at this point.
“When Somalis in Minnesota can’t send money to their loved ones through legal, transparent channels, it strengthens terrorist groups like Al-Shabab,” Franken said. “This is a crisis and needs to be solved now.”