When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

13 February 2007

Illegal Immigrant Visas (and Mastercards)

While US officials dither over immigration policy, business is quietly recognizing the immense power of the underground economy... and bankers, quite sensibly, are loath to leave all that business to the check cashing stores and Western Union:

In the latest sign of the U.S. banking industry's aggressive pursuit of the Hispanic market, Bank of America Corp. has quietly begun offering credit cards to customers without Social Security numbers -- typically illegal immigrants.

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.

Bank of America Casts Wider Net For Hispanics (Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2007; subscription required)

It's news to me that you can even open a checking account without a Social Security Number, much less get a credit card.

When I moved to New York City ten years ago, opening a checking account here was like applying for a low-level security clearance, and I thought (mistakenly, it seems) that the Patriot Act recently made banking restrictions (requiring proof of identity to open accounts) even tighter.

Guess not:

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.

Update: This article is available at AOL Money also - no WSJ subscription required.

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