Illegal aliens will be able to open bank accounts

From the Chicago Tribune

Bank eases ID rules

Illegal immigrants will be allowed to open accounts

By Oscar Avila
Tribune staff reporter

November 20, 2001

Because Cesar Sifuentes is an undocumented immigrant, he must live on the fringes of the financial system. He can't open a bank account, so he hides his earnings in his apartment or pocket. He can't write checks to relatives in Mexico, so he relies on a wire-transfer agency that charges for the service.

But on Monday, a Chicago-based bank joined a growing number of U.S. financial institutions that are sending undocumented immigrants a welcome message: Your money is good here.

First Bank of the Americas announced it will waive its requirement that account holders provide Social Security numbers, in response to lobbying by the Mexican government and a personal plea from President Vicente Fox.

The bank's three branches, in the Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards neighborhoods, will accept tax ID numbers that the IRS provides to any worker, including undocumented immigrants.

First Bank's new policy follows similar announcements this month from Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, and Mexico's consul general in Chicago expects at least three larger banking companies to follow suit in coming weeks.

"This is a very important step in giving the Mexican community the tools and instruments to make a better life both in the United States and Mexico," said Carlos Manuel Sada, the top Mexican diplomat in Chicago.

Last week, Fox convened a federal commission that will work with more than 200 Mexican and American banks and brokerage houses to lower costs. Also, a top Cabinet official made his case for expanded banking opportunities before the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago earlier this month.

Immigrant advocates in Illinois and elsewhere report that criminals often take advantage of the knowledge that undocumented immigrants such as Sifuentes keep large stashes of cash on them or at home.

These immigrants also face obstacles in sending money home. Lacking bank accounts, they often turn to wire-transfer agencies that charge higher service fees and offer unfavorable exchange rates. The estimated 23 million Mexicans living in the United States will send about $9.6 billion to their home country this year.

Under First Bank's new policy, applicants may open accounts with their tax ID number and another form of identification.

Each account holder will receive two automated teller machine cards, one of which could be sent to a relative in Mexico. The relative could withdraw funds from ATMs that are part of the Cirrus network.

The only added expense would be the ATM surcharge.

"If I am going to send $400 and it costs me $10, that is $10 that is not going back to Mexico," said Lazaro Altamirano, president of the International Coalition of Mexicans Abroad, which is lobbying local banks to follow First Bank's lead. "The cheaper we can make it, that is better for both sides."

Mexican officials say Second Federal Savings is the only other Chicago-based bank that has opened accounts to undocumented immigrants.

To help expand options, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) on Monday called on the chairwoman of a key banking subcommittee to hold hearings and formally investigate the denial of banking services based on immigration status.

But many bankers say they already see potential among immigrants.

James Ballentine, director of community development for the American Bankers Association, said interest from banks in immigrants, even those here illegally, has been "bubbling over" in recent months. His association has received no complaints from banks that have loosened requirements.

But Manuel Orozco, director of the remittances project for the Inter-American Dialogue, warns that banks will have to navigate tighter regulations on money transfers because of laws passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

First Bank officials say they don't want to stop with bank accounts.

David Voss, the bank's chairman and chief executive officer, said Mexican officials want to introduce Internet transfers for the 10 percent of Mexican residents who do not have access to ATMs. Also, Mexican officials have raised the idea of a voluntary surcharge on ATM withdrawals that would be earmarked for economic development in an immigrant's hometown, Voss said.

While talks continue at the highest levels of finance and government, the changes resonate with those at the economy's lowest rungs, like Sifuentes.

"It's not like I have a lot of money to spare," said Sifuentes, 31,a construction worker who lives in Little Village. "I want to feel secure with what I do make. To my family, it means a lot."

Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune