WASHINGTON To glimpse how migration is changing the world, consider Western Union, a fixture of American lore that went bankrupt selling telegrams at the dawn of the Internet age but now earns nearly $1 billion a year helping poor migrants across the globe send money home.
Migration is so central to Western Union that forecasts of border movements drive the company's stock. Its researchers outpace the Census Bureau in tracking migrant locations. Long synonymous with Morse code, the company now advertises in Tagalog and Twi and runs promotions for holidays as obscure as Phagwa and Fiji Day. Its executives hail migrants as "heroes" and once tried to oust Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., because of his push for tougher immigration laws.
"Global migration is the cornerstone of how we've grown," said Christina A. Gold, Western Union's chief executive.
With five times as many locations worldwide as McDonald's, Starbucks, Burger King and Wal-Mart combined, Western Union is the lone behemoth among hundreds of money transfer companies. Little noticed by the public and seldom studied by scholars, these businesses form the infrastructure of global migration, a force remaking economics, politics and cultures across the world.
Last year, migrants from poor countries sent home $300 billion, more than three times the world's foreign-aid budgets combined.
Western Union's dominance of the industry casts it in a host of unlikely new roles: as a force in development economics, a player in U.S. immigration debates and a target of contrasting attacks.
Its unparalleled reach gives millions of migrants a safe way to transmit money, and may even increase the amounts sent. But critics have long complained about its fees, which can run from about 4 percent to 20 percent or more. And the company's lobbying for immigrant-friendly laws has raised the ire of people who say it profits from, or even promotes, illegal immigration.
Western Union tracks migrants so closely that it has made pitches to illegal immigrants just released from detention camps.
After settling a damaging lawsuit that accused it of hiding large fees, Western Union set out to recast its image, portraying itself as the migrants' trusted friend. Over the past four years, it has spent more than $1 billion on marketing, selectively cut prices and charged into American politics, donating to immigrants' rights groups and advocating a path to legalization for illegal immigrants.
While some migrant groups remain wary, the company has won unlikely praise.
"Western Union has become a company that values and protects its customers," said Matthew J. Piers, the Chicago lawyer who sued the company. "Nobody was more surprised at the change than me, because I was Western Union critic Numero Uno."
Western Union's zealous pursuit of migrants can be seen in a government office in Manila, where a half million Filipinos a year wait to have their papers processed before leaving for overseas jobs. Everything in the waiting room is labeled "Western Union": the backs of the chairs, the tops of the desks, the bottom of the queue sign and the front of the menu in the adjacent cafeteria.
The Philippines requires each outbound migrant to attend a pre-departure seminar. Western Union, for an extra fee, gets something even more valuable than yellow walls: a chance to offer instructions on sending money home.
The sessions are conducted with "the basic idea of seeking out Western Union when they go abroad," said Steve Peregrino, the company's marketing director in the Philippines. In and around the waiting room, reviews are positive.
Ernald Vincent Mendoza, a restaurant supervisor in Saudi Arabia, dismissed the argument that the company's pricing took advantage of the poor. Though banks are cheaper, the money can take a week to arrive, he said, while Western Union sends it instantly. "If they have good quality and service, you have to pay for that," he said.
A telegraph giant evolves
Western Union's founders set out in 1851 to build the first telegraph giant. A decade later, they had linked the coasts, a feat celebrated in a Zane Grey novel and a Hollywood film, both called "Western Union." Airmail and faxes left telegrams obsolete, and the company went bankrupt in 1992.
It emerged two years later as a money transfer company it had been sending cash since 1871 and was acquired in 1995 by the Colorado corporation First Data. Flush times followed. Fueled by the surge in migration, international money transfers were growing by 20 percent a year.
In 1998, Piers sued the company, alleging that Western Union and a rival, MoneyGram, deceived customers with advertisements like "Send $300 to Mexico for $15," since the companies typically made much more (in this case another $25) by setting foreign exchange rates to their advantage. While denying any wrongdoing, the companies paid millions to settle the case.
Western Union appeared "money-oriented" and "cold," warned an internal marketing document that called for a more empathetic image. The goal, as one plan put it, was to capture a "share of mind" and a "share of heart" to preserve a "share of wallet."
Having once stressed efficiency ("the fastest way to send money"), Western Union now emphasizes the devotion the money represents. One poster pairs a Filipino nurse in London with her daughter back home in cap and gown, making Western Union an implicit partner in the family's achievements. "Sending so much more than money" is a common tag line.
The company sponsors hundreds of ethnic festivals, concerts and sporting events, from cricket matches for Indians in Dubai to sack races for Jamaicans in Queens, N.Y.
Last year it paid a Filipino pop star, Jim Paredes, to record a Tagalog song urging migrants to send money home. It paid the producers of a Bollywood film, "Namastey London," for a scene in which a Western Union wire transfer helps rescue the heroine.
The Western Union agent in Panama played the rescuer's role himself. With many of his customers illegal immigrants mostly from Colombia he put three lawyers on retainer and started a radio show. The lawyers answered callers' questions and scheduled free appointments.
A global operation
Western Union boasts of 320,000 locations worldwide. Many agents are large organizations, like the Chinese postal system or grocery store chains. (About 60 percent of Western Union's person-to-person transfers occur wholly outside the United States.)
But companies also battle block by block for trusted local figures. Among them is Michael Lee, 35, who owns an electronics store called World Top Communications in New York's Chinatown. Sharing a building with a "lupus and tumor consultant," on a block of East Broadway that smells of dried shrimp, he was told by Western Union to expect a few hundred transactions a month.
He now does 100,000 a year, he said. Lee, who earns about $2.50 per transaction, is so enthusiastic he persuaded his landlord to paint the building yellow, and the company donated $16,000 worth of paint.
Many of his customers are in the country illegally. Lee, who was once an illegal immigrant, said his business fell by about 40 percent last spring after a series of nationwide immigration raids. "A lot of people don't have green cards they are afraid," he said.
Salo Eduardo Levy, Western Union's Mexico director, echoed that theme at a September meeting of industry executives. "We have customers calling agents before they go: 'Is it safe? Is La Migra around?' "
A 2006 survey by the Inter-American Development Bank found that illegal immigrants made up about 40 percent of the Latin Americans in the United States who used money transfer companies.
Western Union says it does not know what share of its customers are illegal immigrants, but at times it has made pitches directly to them. As Central Americans surged across the Texas border in 1999, an overflowing federal detention center bused them to a homeless shelter in Brownsville. Western Union sponsored a lunch there, dispensing T-shirts, bandannas and fliers in Spanish with the company's toll-free telephone number.
Western Union also held marketing events around the same time for people deported from the United States to Honduras and El Salvador.
"They would arrive in a special holding area, and we would have an agent in there a young lady in tight jeans, tight T-shirt" to promote Western Union products, said a former company official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "We knew that within a week they would be back on their way to the U.S."
Immigration and politics
Western Union's views on immigration have brought conflicts with Tancredo, the Republican congressman who represents the Denver suburb where the company has its headquarters. Three years ago, when Tancredo, a fierce critic of illegal immigration, proposed taxing the money that migrants send, First Data formed a political action committee to drive him from office.
"We're tired of his antics," Niehaus told The Rocky Mountain News. "We're opting for change."
After winning re-election, Tancredo attacked Western Union for co-sponsoring a Spanish guide that he said promoted illegal immigration. The guide said that schools and clinics would not check migrants' papers and advised them to "always carry the name and number of an attorney."
In a recent interview, Tancredo, who is running for president, said the company's activities occupied "a gray area" between aggressive marketing and "aiding and abetting illegal immigration."
"Western Union wants to encourage illegal immigration in order to expand the number of people in their market," he said. "Believe me, if I were president, I would ask the Justice Department to look into it."
In 2004, Charles T. Fote, then First Data's chairman, gave a speech calling for "comprehensive" reform, a term used by supporters of legalization plans for illegal immigrants.
The company sponsored public forums to promote the idea and donated $100,000 to a group unsuccessfully fighting Proposition 200 in Arizona, which requires proof of citizenship from people seeking to vote or collect certain public benefits.
As the debate moved to Washington, Western Union gave money to many groups supporting legalization plans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce received nearly $1 million, a Chamber official said, while an Illinois group used some Western Union money to bring busloads of immigrants to Capitol Hill. When a bipartisan Senate bill emerged last spring, Western Union officials flew to Washington to lobby directly, urging Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., to support the measure. He eventually did, though it ultimately failed.
"Most companies are afraid to speak up," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which has received $40,000 from Western Union over the past three years. "When it got hot, they stayed with it."
But proponents of stricter border controls see commerce, not courage, at play. "Western Union has decided that its business model depends on a continuing flow of illegal immigrants," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates low levels of immigration.
Western Union's latest battle is with the Arizona attorney general, Terry Goddard, who in 2004 began seizing money transfers into Arizona that he suspected were mean to pay human smugglers. The effort led to hundreds of arrests but also froze legitimate transfers and scared away customers, costing Western Union millions.
After two years of cooperation, the company sued last year when Goddard, a Democrat, expanded his request to cover transfers from across the United States to Sonora, Mexico. In September, an Arizona court ruled for Western Union.
The company is "protecting an illegal enterprise in human smuggling," Goddard said. "It's outrageous."
The company spun off from First Data a year ago, and it has an estimated global market share of 14 percent, versus 3 percent for its closest competitor, MoneyGram. Though Western Union has responded to increased competition by cutting its charges, it typically remains the most expensive service.
An Oakland group, the Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action, has begun a boycott campaign, demanding that Western Union lower its prices and increase its corporate giving. But it has gained little traction, in part because of the company's recent courtship of migrant groups.
One former critic who now gives Western Union grudging credit is Donald F. Terry, an official at the Inter-American Development Bank. He has spent years trying to get more migrants to use banks, so they could establish financial histories and qualify for loans.
But banks have failed to fully welcome migrants, he said, while Western Union and other money transfer companies have more locations, better hours and agents who know their customers' language and culture.
"You could say they were ripping people off, or you could also say they're providing a service that poor people desperately needed and were willing to pay for," Terry said. "Any consumer company in the world would like to have the customer loyalty they have. They're doing something right."