- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bank of America has sparked a storm of protest by offering credit cards to customers who lack Social Security numbers in a program that could benefit illegal aliens.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based bank started offering the credit cards this month at 51 branch banks in the Los Angeles area.

“At face value, it’s quite problematic,” said Russ Knocke, Homeland Security Department spokesman. “It reinforces the fact that there’s a tremendous economic pull for illegal immigrants to come to this country and find work.”

The Homeland Security Department oversees government efforts to block illegal immigration.

Bank of America officials say they are merely following good business practices in providing services for their customers. They also say they are following Treasury Department banking regulations.

“This program has not been specifically designed or marketed for illegal immigrants,” said company spokeswoman Betsy Weinberger. “The issue of customers’ citizenship, taxpaying status is not any bank’s focus. Our focus is on compliance with all government-required regulations.”

Bank of America’s credit cards would be available to anyone who has held a checking account with the bank for at least three months with no overdrafts.

The National Illegal Immigration Boycott Coalition has started a boycott of Bank of America because of the bank’s offer of credit cards, mortgages and accounts to illegal aliens.

And several online polls show that most Americans disapprove of Bank of America’s decision to offer credit cards with no Social Security numbers or credit history required.

Treasury Department regulations require banks to verify the identities of their account holders.

U.S. citizens must show a Social Security number or tax-identification number to open an account. Foreigners must show bank officers a passport number, alien-identification number or documents issued by any government indicating nationality or residency, with a photo identification.

Officials from the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates the banking industry, refused to comment on the Bank of America program.

“We don’t comment on individual banks,” said Kevin Mukri, the agency’s spokesman. “We make sure they follow all the applicable laws and regulations.”

The credit cards are an early phase of a national marketing effort later this year. Bank of America tested the program last year at five branch banks in Los Angeles, which reportedly has the nation’s highest concentration of illegal aliens.

The credit cards require customers to make deposits and pay higher interest rates than traditional cards.

They could allow illegal aliens to overcome difficulties of the credit histories that they need to expand their purchasing power with home or business loans.

Hispanics are the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group and represent more than 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2000 U.S. census. The government estimates that there are 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the U.S.

Hispanics controlled purchasing power of about $700 billion last year, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Critics of the new Bank of America credit-card program question whether they should be given an easier transition into American life through financial assistance.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, wrote a letter Feb. 7 to U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff asking them to investigate Bank of America.

“Bank of America may also be violating the law by offering these services,” Mr. Tancredo said. “Federal immigration laws make it a crime for any person or entity to harbor, transport, conceal, aid or abet illegal aliens.”

He said easier credit for illegal aliens could be used to finance terrorists.

Supporters of the program say better banking services for illegal aliens does not threaten the United States.

“Bank accounts and credit cards are tools for financial management to which all individuals in the U.S. should have access,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, a Takoma Park support group for the Hispanic community. “People come to our country looking for a better life for their families and improved economic opportunities. In addition, our economy depends on immigrant labor.”

Banks nationwide are expanding their services to the Hispanic community.

Wachovia started offering automated teller machine cards two years ago that can be loaded with value in the United States, then mailed to family members in other countries — most commonly Latin American countries. The family members can withdraw money from the cards at their own banks.

Citibank has a binational card, which allows customers to open accounts in the United States but have other people withdraw money from the accounts at branches of Mexican bank Banamex.

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