Immigrants Stay in Touch Via Teleconference

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Video conferencing is becoming a popular way for immigrants to keep in touch with relatives in other countries. The technology is helping many immigrants see and speak to family members for the first time in years.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Remember that famous line from a telephone commercial? Reach out and touch someone? Now some companies are taking it a step further and are offering video conferencing to help immigrants see their families back home, often for the first time in years. NPR's Allison Keys reports.

ALLISON KEYES: Judy Contreras is smiling so hard, it looks like her cheeks might burst. She's sitting on a chair in a conference room in Bay Shore New York, holding a glass of wine, sharing a virtual dinner with a table full of relatives in Bogotá, Columbia.

Ms. JUDY CONTRERAS: I happy, happy - very, very happy.

KEYES: Judy hasn't seen her mom and dad or her brothers and sisters in four years. Now she seems them and they see her on giant TV screens in real-time. It makes you feel like everyone's sitting in the same room eating, even though some are thousands of miles away.

Ms. CONTRERAS: No, no, no.

(Through Interpreter) It's been such a long time that she hasn't seen them, so that's why they're celebrating.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

KEYES: (Unintelligible) the call from Judy, Hamilton Cortez is being set up for an interview with his family in El Salvador. He hasn't seen them since moving to Huntington Station on Long Island three years ago.

Mr. HAMILTON CORTEZ: I am excited, and I don't know how to explain it, but I feel like, nice.

KEYES: Moments later, Cortez is sitting in a room with a large American flag on the wall, beaming at his mom, aunt and his best friend's family, passing on a reporters question about how he looks to them.

Mr. CORTEZ: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: He laughs that he's gained weight while working at a restaurant. Cortez says the visit surprised him, and he'll be back with others of his family who live on Long Island so they, too, can see their relatives.

Mr. CORTEZ: Like the (unintelligible) it was really neat. I can see them like, pretty nice.

KEYES: Entrepreneur Fernando Rojas opened this business called Reach Out on Long Island a year ago, after spending 10 years trying to put together the financial backing for the company. He says having been in the U.S. for 26 years after leaving Columbia, he understands how the families feel.

Mr. FERNANDO ROJAS (Founder, Reach Out): We got a lot of beautiful moments. One time we had a wedding, the girl came to show her mother the dress before she got married. And it was a beautiful thing. We were opening champagne and celebrating here.

KEYES: Rojas charges between 60 and $120 an hour for the conferences. He says he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up relationships with similar companies in the U.S. and abroad, and the technology - including fiber optic-dedicated lines as well as a satellite. Now he could hook up several countries at once.

Mr. ROJAS: We could get families together that live in different countries, like just say Ecuador, Columbia, Guatemala. We can put the families together in one screen and they can see each other and talk at the same time.

KEYES: At Los Angeles-based Amigo Latino Gabriel Degoria(ph) is one of the video-conferencing entrepreneurs who works with Rojas. Degoria says he served about 5,000 people since his company opened four years ago to fill a need.

Mr. GABRIEL DEGORIA (Owner, Amigo Latino): For me, the biggest need that (unintelligible) was in the Hispanic market - the migrant community, of whom many, you know, would come here to the U.S., spend years without being able to go back, and therefore not being able to see their loved ones.

KEYES: Now he has six offices in the United States, from California to Chicago, and eight overseas. And he's hoping to expand beyond Latin America.

Mr. DEGORIA: We're pretty well covered throughout Latin America, but I work with a good number of connections with India, with the Philippines, with Vietnam, with Africa as well. There's a few places in Africa we've connected -Australia, so pretty much it's a technology and a service that allows us to connect anywhere, anyone anywhere around the world.

KEYES: Analysts say there's no data on how big this trend is. But it clearly is growing. Back in Bay Shore, Judy Contreras doesn't care how it works. She's too busy listening to her nephew sing her a song over the giant screen.

Unidentified Child: (Singing) (Spanish Spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish Spoken)

Unidentified Child: (Spanish Spoken)

KEYES: Allison Keys, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Stay with us. NPR's DAY TO DAY CONTINUES.

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