Cross posted from Liberally Comservative
Bank of America Corp. has quietly begun offering credit cards to customers without Social Security numbers — typically illegal immigrants.
The Wall Street Journal [subscription] is reporting:
In recent years, banks across the country have begun offering checking accounts and, in some cases, mortgages to the nation’s fast-growing ranks of undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Hispanic. But these immigrants generally haven’t been able to get major credit cards, making it hard for them to develop a credit history and expand their purchasing power.
The new Bank of America program is open to people who lack both a Social Security number and a credit history, as long as they have held a checking account with the bank for three months without an overdraft. Most adults in the U.S. who don’t have a Social Security number are undocumented immigrants.
The credit cards involved aren’t cheap. They come with a high interest rate and an upfront fee. And the idea of catering to illegal immigrants is controversial.
Bank of America defends the program, saying it complies with U.S. banking and antiterrorism laws. Company executives say that the initiative isn’t about politics, but rather about meeting the needs of an untapped group of potential customers.
“These people are coming here for quality of life, and they deserve somebody to give them a chance to achieve that quality of life,” says Brian Tuite, the bank’s director of Latin America card operations and one of the architects of the program.
Critics say Bank of America is knowingly making a product available to people who are violating U.S. immigration law. “They are clearly crossing the line; they are actually aiding and abetting people who broke the law,” says Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates a crackdown on illegal immigration.
Typical of the new card’s customers is Antonio Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant whose only major asset is a white 1996 Ford Thunderbird, which he drives to the two restaurants where he works each day on opposite sides of Los Angeles. Mr. Sanchez, who says he sneaked across the border a decade ago, has been a customer of Bank of America’s East Hollywood branch for nine years. He has no borrowing history and no Social Security number.
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said banking products aimed at illegal immigrants “reinforce the need for a temporary worker program” that the Bush administration has been promoting. That program would screen, tax and otherwise regulate immigrant workers and, the administration contends, would squeeze out illegal workers who now use forged or stolen documents to get jobs, driver’s licenses and occasionally credit.
Anti-money-laundering regulations passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks put more pressure on banks to verify customers’ identity and watch for suspicious transactions, but they don’t require banks to ascertain whether account holders are in the U.S. legally. Most banks require a Social Security number or ITIN to open an account, but regulations also allow them to accept other government-issued forms of identification in some instances, including passport numbers, alien identification numbers or any government-issued document with photo showing nationality or place of residence.
A handful of retailers, such as Los Angeles’s closely held La Curacao department store chain, have boosted their business by cultivating illegal immigrants with store credit cards. “Once you capture them, they become very loyal,” says Ron Azarkman, chief executive of La Curacao, which has developed its own in-house credit-ratings system. “This is a promising market, as long as it is carefully managed,” he says, adding that the average APR charged by his company is 22.9%.
Bank of America hasn’t launched an ad campaign for the new card. For the time being, it is counting on word of mouth that starts with its employees at each banking center. Many of the Spanish-speaking account holders who come to teller Luz Quintanilla’s window at Bank of America’s East Hollywood branch, already have a Social Security number and regular credit card with the bank. But she suggests in Spanish that “maybe you have family or friends who don’t have a Social Security number, but wish to build their credit.”
In selling the card, a major challenge is to persuade immigrants who are sometimes wary of plastic that holding a credit card is an important step on the way to obtaining loans for big-ticket items, such as a car or even a home. Pictures of a check book, credit card, car and house in ascending order illustrate this concept in one pamphlet in Spanish and English titled “How to Build Your Credit, Step by Step.”
It’s no wonder I called my cell phone company and found myself stuck in a Spanish speaking cue on the menu, had to hang up and start over. The new market is “illegal immigrants”; if you are legal and speak English your going to find an obstacle course to customer service in English.
Bank of America sees a “need” to build business but to do so supports the notion it’s ok to be in the United States illegally. Bank of America is conducting its own amnesty program for illegal aliens. Offering high interest rates for low-income workers will most likely set those people up for failure, not credit worthiness to buy houses and cars.
**This was a production of The Coalition Against Illegal Immigration (CAII). If you would like to participate, please go to the above link to learn more. Afterwards, email the coalition and let us know at what level you would like to participate