HOUSTON — Like many illegal immigrants, Javier Huete did not dare plan a trip home for the holidays for fear he would not be able to re-enter the United States. But he was able to see his mother, in-laws and cousins in Honduras anyway, thanks to videoconferencing services sold by an Order Express storefront in Houston.
A check-cashing and money-transfer company based in Michoacan, Mexico, Order Express began offering videoconferencing last year at a dozen of its 300 locations throughout the United States and Latin America.
"I talk to my family on the phone all the time, but with this they can see the children," Huete, a delivery truck driver, said in Spanish.
During the 40-minute videoconference with a dozen of his relatives assembled at an Order Express in Honduras, Huete's infant daughter squirmed in his lap and his 4-year-old daughter stood with her nose nearly touching a 60-inch flat-screen TV on which the image of her teary-eyed grandmother cooed, "Que bonita!" or "How beautiful!" Normally, a half-hour visit costs $40, but the managers gave him an extra 10 minutes because they had trouble hooking up initially.
Because of stricter border enforcement since Sept. 11, increased high- speed Internet access and reduced cost of video equipment, more businesses are offering videoconferencing services to reunite immigrants with their families back home.
Typically found in or near places immigrants frequent, like money transfer operations or consular offices, these kinds of services are extremely popular and often reserved for weeks in advance.
"I'm booked Dec. 20 through Jan. 1," said Ivan Fernando Rojas, owner of a small videoconferencing business in Bay Shore, New York, called A Tu Alcance, which means "reach out."
Such businesses are often run by immigrants like Rojas, who is from Colombia. "I know how it feels being in a country without your family," he said. Rojas started A Tu Alcance in 2004 with money he saved from cleaning office buildings.
"I got the idea 12 years ago when I was dusting videoconference equipment in an office," he said. But back then, the technology cost $10,000 to $20,000. Today, a complete videoconference set- up costs as little as $2,000, according to Laura Shay, director for marketing at Polycom, a leading brand.
While no one keeps track of the number of videoconferencing businesses marketing their services to immigrants, sales people at companies like Polycom report increased inquiries and purchases.
"This was not a successful business model until recently because now you have both the affordability of the equipment as well as the wider availability of Internet cable connections, which you need to have on both sides, here and there," said Charlie Macli, senior vice president of sales and marketing at VCi, a provider of video communications and network services in Hauppauge, New York.
Though most videoconferencing businesses tend to be small, single-shop operations, a company called AmigoLatino has locations in eight U.S. cities with large Hispanic immigrant communities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. It also has affiliate offices in eight Latin American countries as well as in Spain. Moreover, AmigoLatino oversees videoconferencing operations at Order Express shops like the one in Houston where Huete linked up with his family in Honduras.
Founded in 2002 by Gabriel Biguria and a small group of private investors, AmigoLatino caters mostly to Spanish- speaking immigrants.
"It would work equally well for immigrants from Asia or Africa but the time difference would be a challenge," said Biguria, who is from Guatemala and holds a master's degree from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He formerly worked in marketing and sales for Hewlett-Packard and several Silicon Valley start- ups.
"There's incredibly high demand for this kind of service," particularly given the Hispanic culture's traditional emphasis on family togetherness, said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, professor for international development and Chicano and Chicana studies at the University of California in Los Angeles.
His mobile banking services company, No Borders, offered videoconferencing between sites in the United States and Latin America for two years before it spun off that part of his business in 2005 to a concern in Pueblo, Mexico, called Creative Networks.
Creative Networks links up personal computers at a dozen affiliates in the United States to a Latin American network of Internet cafes with broadband Internet access, Hinojosa-Ojeda said. Hispanic immigrants typically don't have computers at home, much less have the kind of high-end computers and broadband access necessary for clear, live video transmission and reception.
"The way most PCs allocate power to images is less than what you need to get really good quality," said Elliot Gold, president of Telespan, a company that provides market analysis of the teleconferencing and videoconferencing industry. "The image gets really grainy when you blow it up on a large screen." Specialized videoconferencing equipment, he said, is usually the way to go for getting "the other person is in the room with you" type of experience.
And that is what homesick immigrants like Huete in Houston want. "It's good to feel as if the family is in the same place," he said.
Many times, immigrants set up a videoconference to mark a special occasion. For example, Rojas said families in two countries assemble before video screens to celebrate birthdays, engagements and 50th wedding anniversaries. They sit around, talk, eat cake and drink wine.
One of his customers recently scheduled a videoconference to show her mother in El Salvador the gown she was going wear at her upcoming wedding. "I cry 9 times out of 10," Rojas said.
The cost of these kinds of virtual reunions ranges from $80 to $120 an hour depending on the Latin American country. This is far less than at places like FedEx Kinkos, which charges $265 to $350 and requires the party in Latin America to provide their own equipment since the business services chain doesn't have locations there.
While still expensive for many immigrants, some say it's worth it. "I was able to see my auntie and uncle," said Blanca Leticia Pineda de Juarez, a nanny in Los Angeles who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala 15 years ago. She hadn't seen them since she left and was able to introduce them to her infant daughter last month during a videoconference at AmigoLatino's Los Angeles office.
"It made me feel so good," she said during a telephone interview. "I'm definitely going to do it again."