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Bank offers accounts to illegal workers targeted by thieves

By Guillermo X. Garcia
USA Today, May 2, 2001

AUSTIN, Texas -- One of the largest banks in the country is teaming with Austin police in a first-of-its-kind program to protect Mexican citizens illegally living in the USA.

Wells Fargo Bank and Austin Police will announce a program today that offers bank accounts to undocumented workers who increasingly are targets of violent robberies because they often carry cash.

Because of their illegal status, most of these workers -- young, single men from Mexico -- don't report the violence because they fear that any contact with U.S. officials will lead to deportation.

Immigrants will be able to open accounts that don't pay interest at any Wells Fargo branch in Austin. All they'll need is a government photo ID that the Mexican consulate here will issue. These workers haven't been able to open U.S. bank accounts because they couldn't get proper ID due to their illegal status.

New account holders will receive two ATM cards, one of which they can send to relatives in Mexico. When a deposit is made in the USA, funds can be electronically transferred to branches of Banamex, the largest bank in Mexico.

Last year, there were an estimated 7.5 million Mexican workers illegally living in the USA, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The workers sent more than $ 8 billion of their earnings to their families in Mexico, Mexican officials say. Only oil and tourism revenue generates more dollars for Mexico.

Wells Fargo is not undertaking the venture strictly as a business proposition, says regional President Rick Burciaga. But it does give the bank an opportunity to tap into a growing Hispanic market.

"This is not a marketing effort, though we'd hope that people far and wide discover and use the program," he says. "We are doing this because it is just the right thing to do." If the Austin model works, it can easily be implemented in other areas of the country where large populations of illegal Mexican workers live.

Burciaga's bank became involved after Austin police approached several area banks with the idea. Police publicized the program through churches and social service groups that serve the immigrant community. Public service announcements on Spanish-language radio also were used.

Police say that bands of teens and young adults of all races target illegal workers, knowing they are not likely to report crimes. Many workers believe local police are extensions of the INS and that complaints might get them deported.

"Monitoring people opening bank accounts is not a priority (for the INS)," spokesman Bill Strassberger says. "This seems to be strictly a financial transaction. There's no immigration question to this."

Last year, four Mexican citizens were robbed and murdered in Austin. Police say they were targeted because they were illegal immigrants. Officials don't know how many illegal workers live in the region but estimate it could be tens of thousands.

Hispanics, who make up one-quarter of the city's 750,000 residents, were victims in almost half of the city's more than 880 robberies last year, according to police statistics. Police say that about one in five violent assaults against illegal immigrants are actually reported.

"Our job here is to protect and serve, and that is what we will do, regardless of your (citizenship) status," says Austin Police Chief Stan Knee, who pushed for the banking program after concluding that the department was not providing enough protection to illegal residents. He also created a robbery unit of eight detectives that will focus on cases involving immigrants.

Mexican authorities say they do not know how many of its citizens are victimized. But they were concerned enough with the growing number of assaults that they raised the issue when Mexican President Vicente Fox and President Bush met in Mexico in February.


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