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Buying American Citizenship…on Credit

While comprehensive immigration reform simmers on the political backburner in Washington D.C., banks are embracing the nation’s 12 million-plus illegal immigrants, targeting their financial products–checking accounts, mortgages and, now, credit cards–to help them achieve the American Dream, even if they’re not American.

While comprehensive immigration reform simmers on the political backburner in Washington D.C., banks are embracing the nation’s 12 million-plus illegal immigrants, targeting their financial products–checking accounts, mortgages and, now, credit cards–to help them achieve the American Dream, even if they’re not American.

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Bank of America (BofA) has “quietly” begun issuing credit cards to customers without social security numbers or credit history in Los Angeles–typically illegal immigrants, the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reported yesterday.

The new program is open to people without a Social Security number or credit history, as long as they have held a checking account with the bank for three months without an overdraft, according to the Journal. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank has been testing the program at five Los Angeles branches since last year and last week expanded it to 51 branches in Los Angeles County, home to the largest concentration of illegal immigrants in the U.S. The bank hopes to roll out the program nationally later this year.

Immigration may be a hot-button issue, but BofA ‘s credit program is based on profits, not politics.

Illegal immigrants are a key market for BofA because it has its largest retail operations in California, the Los Angeles Times reports today in a story covering reaction to the news.

“Bank of America is the biggest bank for Hispanics in the country, and it made a decision a couple of years ago to keep pushing that market,” Richard Bove, a banking analyst for investment firm Punk, Ziegel & Co., told the Times.

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In a separate editorial opining the virtues of the BofA program, the Times cited a Center for an Urban Future study that found L.A. County leads the nation in the number of Latino-owned firms and about 80 percent of L.A.’s new entrepreneurs were immigrants.

“Executives like [Liam] McGee [BofA’s consumer and small-business banking chief] understand that courting Latinos is more than just a way to pick up a few new customers here and there. It’s a way to tap into a huge engine of economic growth,” says the Times’ editorial board.

Of course, the political backlash was swift and harsh.

Firebrand Colorado Congressman and 2008 presidential candidate Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) fired the first shot in a letter to U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzalez and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

“I hope the administration will shut down this reckless and illegal program before Bank of America extends a line of credit to a potential terrorist,” quotes the Times.

But could it be that Tancredo, known to take the hardest of hard-lines on immigration, is really worried that a population that owns homes and businesses and develops major purchasing power will become defacto citizens to whom the Congress will be forced to grant official U.S. citizenship?

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He should be. This is America; money is power.

“It makes amnesty a fait accompli,” Steven Camarota, a research director for the Center for Immigration Studies told the Times.

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