Count Them In

Santa Fe Reporter | August 24, 2005
Maria sinks into the soft cushions of the living room couch, hoping to catch a few moments of quiet.

It’s just after 9 am. Her husband José has gone to work at one of the restaurants where he’s a busser and won’t be back until nightfall. It’s only a matter of moments before their three young sons wake up from one of their extra-long summer slumbers and turn the family mobile home into the neighborhood boys’ club.

Already their littlest one, Daniel, has started to crawl, grinning and shirtless, from the small room he shares with his brothers across the sea-blue hallway carpet toward the television and the alluring Nintendo controls.

Maria smiles at her son and looks around at her house, a comfortable three-bedroom mobile home just off Agua Fria she and José bought last year. Wide-eyed family portraits hang on the pristine white wall behind her; in the wood-paneled kitchen she bakes the sweet Mexican cakes that she sells to supplement her family’s income; a Dodge Caravan and Ford 4X4 truck are crammed tight in the narrow gravel driveway.

Maria and José have done well for themselves over the past five years. They have two bank accounts, two credit cards and a $902 monthly house payment that ensures their home is their own.

There’s one key difference, however, between Maria’s family and the countless other Americans whose everyday experience they share.

Maria and her husband are not in this country legally. They are undocumented immigrants who, five years ago, made the near 1,300-mile trek from Acapulco Guerrero, Mexico to Santa Fe.

While perhaps the common image of undocumented immigrants is of solitary day laborers wiring small bundles of cash back through the shadows to families in Mexico, in reality, life for undocumented immigrants has become infinitely more complicated.

As the influx of undocumented immigrants has jumped an estimated 2 million since 2000, the US capitalist behemoth has birthed a lively economy to serve this growing and increasingly settled population of more than 11 million people.

Undocumented immigrants are starting to partake of all the products churned out by America’s well-oiled financial assembly line: bank accounts, loans for new homes, cell phones, even health insurance plans. It’s all become possible as the result of growing acceptance of non-traditional forms of identification.

One of the primary documents that allows the 6 million Mexican undocumented immigrants access to this new economy is the matricula consular, a pocket-sized identification card issued to Mexican nationals by the Mexican government. In combination with other forms of ID, such as the IRS-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN), the matricula is nudging open financial doors right and left for immigrants like Maria. What’s more, there’s little risk of having one’s status discovered.

Over the past few years, a growing number of big businesses have started recognizing the matricula card, ITIN or, in some cases no identification at all, in lieu of a Social Security number. Now, everyone from corporate giants like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Cingular Wireless to New Mexico businesses like Homewise and Guadalupe Credit Union are shifting gears and

recognizing the new needs of the undocumented demographic.

The shift has occurred just as the debate over undocumented immigrants has reached fever pitch and federal immigration enforcement has turned up the heat on those who come to this country without asking properly. The result is an uneasy paradox where people considered illegal aliens by the federal government also lawfully participate in the most American of endeavors—investing hard-earned money back into their own livelihood.

Maria herself is a manifestation of that paradox; she did not want her last name used in this story due to the fear of deportation, while at the same time she has ID, credit and a home.

“This demographic, in terms of family structure, duration of residence and now economic integration, really indicates that this is, in a very real sense, a permanent migration,” Jeff Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, says.

Such a scenario is fast becoming the norm throughout the country. Santa Fe is no different.

In the dimly lit lobby of Wells Fargo’s Rodeo Road branch, a dazzling array of color-coated brochures makes an unabashed pitch to the Latino customer.

Among the stacks of pamphlets covered with pictures of smiling Hispanic faces selling a hodgepodge of Wells Fargo programs, a single brochure stands out.

Titled “Commitment To the Latino Community Since 1852,” this particular advertisement boasts of Wells Fargo’s relationships with Latin American banks and the advent of “Latino Format Stores,” which the brochure says are built so its Latino customers feel at home—from art to music to bilingual staff (although it’s a bit unclear whether this store qualifies). The brochure also proudly states that Wells Fargo was the first bank to accept the matricula card.

The genesis of Wells Fargo’s recognition of the matricula card dates back to 2000 and a rash of robbery attacks on undocumented immigrants in Austin, Texas. The immigrants made easy prey as they walked home from work late at night with wads of off-the-books cash earnings tucked perilously into their pockets.

Local newspapers reported the crime spree—nearly half the city’s robbery victims were Hispanics, a wildly disproportionate number—and three of Austin’s four homicide victims that year were undocumented immigrants.

As the robberies continued, the Austin Police Department, along with local Mexican officials, began lobbying local banks to allow undocumented immigrants to open bank accounts using the matricula consular, or “consul card” in English.

They wanted banks to recognize the card in place of Social Security numbers, which are off limits to anyone in this country illegally. The logic was that if immigrants could put their money away for safekeeping, the robbers would leave them alone. Besides, Mexican

consuls around the country had been issuing the card to its citizens since the 1940s—legal or not—so that people here could have, at least, some official documentation. Now, however, it seemed a matter of life and death.

Shortly thereafter, in 2001, Wells Fargo agreed that matricula cards would suffice to open up checking and savings accounts in the 23 states where the bank did business, including New Mexico.

Money in those accounts could not accrue interest, Wells Fargo stipulated, and the card couldn’t be used for a loan because undocumented immigrants had no credit to speak of. Still, the national banking chain had sent a clear message to the undocumented community: “We’re interested in your money, not your immigration status.”

“We thought the matricula card would help Mexican nationals move from a risky cash economy into secure and reliable financial services,” Deanne McElroy, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, says.

Predictably, when undocumented immigrants heard the news, many were reluctant to risk even the slightest chance of being revealed. Eventually, though, the prospect of tucking away their earnings behind the safety of a steel vault was too tempting to resist. Just as important, the surprising invitation to participate in the US economy—even at a micro level—struck at the very heart of why many had come to this country in the first place.

“As the undocumented community keeps growing, it becomes more connected to the community, and that means something to people,” Marcela Díaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe immigrant advocacy group, says.

Very quickly, Wells Fargo’s decision paid off. Since 2001, half a million immigrants have used the matricula card to establish accounts across the country. The number of matricula accounts in New Mexico also has increased quickly and dramatically, according to McElroy, but the bank does not release account numbers by state.

Joe Atkinson, Wells Fargo’s Santa Fe district manager, says it’s becoming increasingly routine for immigrants in the City Different to walk through Wells Fargo’s doors and inquire about matricula accounts. This is especially true at the bank’s south side branches on Rodeo Road and Cerrillos Road where word of the program is spreading through the undocumented community.

“It’s a big burden that’s taken off their shoulders when they can put money in an account and not have to carry it as cash,” Atkinson says. “And it helps establish a relationship with the community in which they’re living.”

Corporate giants like Wells Fargo also know there’s money to be made. A recent Pew Hispanic Center study found that most undocumented immigrants no longer take their money from employers in cash, but actually receive checks for their services, regardless of the trade.

“Clearly Hispanic buying power, which is estimated at $600 billion, has captured the attention of business, and many are responding to the Latino market,” Beatriz Ibarra, an assets policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, which worked with Wells Fargo on the matricula program, says.

Not wanting to be left behind, other banks have followed Wells Fargo’s lead, especially after a 2002 US Treasury Department announcement that the matricula cards were acceptable identifications for banks.

One such lender is Bank of America, which began offering matricula accounts the same year as the Treasury Department edict. The company won’t release specific numbers but Bank of America Spokesman George Owen says the increase in matricula accounts throughout the country and in New Mexico has been steady.

Among the new customers in Santa Fe are Maria’s husband and brother who used the matricula card to open checking accounts at Bank of America and Wells Fargo respectively.

It was not necessarily a cut-and-dry decision for Maria’s family, however, with the omnipresent prospect of deportation still hanging over them. Many of Maria’s undocumented friends around Santa Fe worried that using the matricula at a bank was nothing more than an easy giveaway of their status. Still, Maria felt the opportunity to establish financial stability was too important to pass up.

“Before, my husband was having to pay $10 or $15 every time to cash a check at a check cashing place—it was a hard process,” she says. “But now my brother can send money straight from Wells Fargo back to Mexico. The card has really opened up a lot of doors for us.”

The trend has not gone unnoticed by the American Bankers Association (ABA), the nation’s largest banking trade group, which also believes the accounts are a good thing.

According to the ABA, more and more banks have started accepting matricula cards over the past two years, although the overall numbers are still relatively small—approximately 100 out of 9,000 US banks.

Still, there are those who say

the matricula card compromises immigration enforcement just when the country needs it most. A Google search on matricula cards reveals a smattering of furious Web sites like, whose “Mexican Sham ID Card” section decries the increasing acceptance of the matricula and asks readers if they remember 9.11.

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) maintains that by accepting the card banks are, in effect, laundering money for people not in this country legally.

“While the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol are spending so much time and money on strategies to reduce illegal immigration, far too little attention is being paid to the practices of the American business community,” CIS Spokesman John Keeley says. “The distinction between legal and illegal immigration has been blurred, and it’s undermining governmental will to enforce the law.”

For the increasing number of big banks that accept the matricula card, however, what’s happening is simply a function of a burgeoning new economy built up around people’s needs.

“We expect this trend to continue,” James Ballentine, director of grassroots and community service for the ABA, says. “The fact of the matter is that this population isn’t going anywhere, and they shouldn’t have to hide their money under the mattress any longer.”

The idea sounded crazy at first. Send a few tax forms to the federal government, essentially announcing that you’re undocumented and don’t have a Social Security number, and in return, you get a legal tax ID number.

For Maria and José, the decision to apply for the IRS-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Number was one they discussed at length, both with each other and with Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

“We were worried about what would happen, but once we learned more about our rights we thought this would be best,” Maria says. “We thought eventually this could help us get legal status.”

Maria, in fact, was so excited about the prospect of getting an ITIN number that she sent the IRS original copies of her birth certificate and her matricula card by certified mail. Thankfully for her, the IRS sent her documents back, along with ITIN numbers for her and her husband.

“I sent them everything out of desperation,” she says through a slightly embarrassed chuckle. “I wanted to make sure I got the ITIN in case the rules changed.”

The rules didn’t change though, and a year after Maria and her husband received their ITIN, they went to Guadalupe Credit Union in Santa Fe to take out a loan so they could buy their own home, a lifelong dream.

Like matricula cards, ITIN numbers have actually been around for years. During the mid-1990s, the IRS noticed that a growing number of tax returns seemed to have incorrect Social Security numbers, making it impossible to verify whose taxes the agency was processing.

Realizing the Social Security mix-up was likely the result of people who didn’t have legitimate Social Security numbers at all—a dead giveaway for undocumented immigrants—the IRS introduced in 1996 a program by which anyone could apply for a tax ID number, whether here legally or not.

As with matricula cards, the emergence of ITIN numbers is occurring in the post-9.11 era, at a time when the US is trying desperately to seal its border with Mexico and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is pursuing deportation of undocumented immigrants with renewed vigor.

“The ITIN policy aids and abets the employment of illegal aliens. It allows them to remain underground. This is coming from a federal entity and it’s undermining the enforcement of federal law,” CIS’s Keeley says.

Much like Wells Fargo, however, the bottom line for the IRS is that it doesn’t care who you are as long as you show them the money.

“Our system doesn’t look at status,” Bill Brunson, a spokesman for the IRS in New Mexico, says. “If a person is unable to obtain a Social Security number for whatever reason, we’ll issue them a number so they can file their taxes.”

Indeed, since its inception, the program has exploded—between 1996 and 2002, 7.5 million people living in this country were issued ITIN numbers, simply by filling out a few tax forms.

Although the desire to pay taxes may seem bizarre to most Americans, the thought process is different for undocumented immigrants, Díaz says.

“These are people who are planning on staying here, so they want to make sure they do everything right, especially if they don’t have status,” Díaz says. “There’s the mindset that if there’s an opportunity for legalization at some point, they’ve complied completely with the law, and everything is in order.”

For many credit unions, an ITIN number is now enough to take out a loan, although it’s usually a small one. The World Council of Credit Unions announced in 2002 that such identification was adequate, and approximately two years ago the Guadalupe Credit Union in Santa Fe opened its doors to ITIN holders.

“We had also talked at length with Somos Un Pueblo Unido about it, and thought it was a good idea,” Guadalupe Credit Union President Winona Nava says. “When someone has an ITIN number and wants a loan we make sure to start them off slow.”

For Maria, that meant a $22,000 loan for her and her husband, enough to buy the small mobile home where they currently live off Agua Fria. Her job—she bakes cakes for a living—and her husband’s construction work is enough to make the $376 mortgage payment and $526 land plot payment each month.

Neither Wells Fargo nor Bank of America accept ITIN numbers as a means of taking out loans, although both banks told SFR they’re considering it.

Homewise, a local affordable housing group that helps people buy homes at subsidized prices, also still requires a Social Security number for its loans. Lulu Gomez, a Homewise housing counselor, says the organization’s investors are reluctant for the group to dole out loans to those with ITIN numbers because the applicant has no credit to speak of and it’s impossible to guarantee the loan will be repaid.

The situation becomes complicated because Homewise often sees families where one spouse has a valid Social Security number, while the other might have a matricula card or ITIN. In such cases, Homewise only offers a loan based on the income of the family member with the Social Security number, a caveat which often makes the loan painfully small, sometimes too small for even an affordably priced home.

This comes at a time when increasing numbers of immigrants are inquiring about loans.

Take the case of Susanna, who came to Santa Fe legally from Chihuahua, Mexico in 2001. Susana’s husband, however, is not here legally, but is just weeks away from getting an ITIN number.

Last month the couple walked into Homewise wanting information about buying their own home for them and their two children. Because Homewise only recognizes Social Security numbers, the $24,000 annual income Susanna’s husband makes working construction could not be considered for the loan, ITIN number or not. All Homewise could work with was Susanna’s $12,000 income; that amount was too low for any loan at all.

“We kind of knew that was going to happen, but we wanted to see anyway,” Susanna says. “It’s our dream to buy a house.” Gomez, the homebuyer counselor who worked with Susanna, also was disappointed with the circumstances: “It’s sad to see that happen because we’re here to help low- and modest-income families and Susanna and her husband fall into that category,” Gomez says. “But because our investors are not prepared for us to give those loans yet, there’s nothing we can do.”

Still, Gomez says Homewise is considering finding other investors who more feel comfortable with ITIN numbers, and is excited about the prospect of ITIN numbers becoming more accepted.

That time might be sooner rather than later. An Aug. 9 Los Angeles Times story reported that small lenders in California have started offering loans to undocumented immigrants with ITIN numbers with the encouragement of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The story also noted that at least one national bank, Citibank, has quietly started giving loans to people with ITIN numbers as well. Though national mortgage lenders that typically cater to the Latino demographic, such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, haven’t followed suit just yet, the trend is picking up steam.

“We think it’s only a matter of time before this becomes common,” Gary Acosta, cofounder of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Partners (NAHREP), says. “The issue in the past has been whether this is a good risk to take, and we think that as the lending committees slowly enter the market, they’ll recognize that loans to ITIN holders are no riskier than any other loan.”

Further, Acosta says, major lenders have indicated they’re moving towards recognizing ITIN cards in the near future. He points out that last year the Mortgage Guarantee Insurance Corporation, the nation’s largest loan insurance agency, agreed to insure ITIN loans, a decision which will likely allay the concerns of many lenders.

Perhaps even more important is the growing economic might of the Latino market—especially the undocumented segment—which should be enough to keep lenders chomping at the bit, Acosta says.

According to a recent NAHREP study, undocumented immigrants potentially could add $44 billion in new mortgages

if given complete access to homeownership. NAHREP also

estimates that a quarter of the 1.5 million undocumented

immigrant households in the US could become homeowners

if the identification barriers were knocked down.

Acosta says: “This is simply the right thing to do.”

Watching Maria sit at home, young family in tow, talking about her remarkably normal life, it seems merely procedural to call her an undocumented immigrant, or even an illegal one.

Between the matricula card, the ITIN number and the New Mexico state ID she got by having both those documents, Maria already possesses more forms of legal identification than most Americans. The bank accounts, home loans, mobile home, the life she and her family lead, have integrated Maria into the ranks of working America—financially and socially.

“My advice to others is to not be afraid,” she says. “I know people are scared of deportation, but these IDs are opening a lot of doors.”

To be sure, all signs indicate that as the undocumented population becomes more settled, there will be even more opportunity.

Cell phone companies like Cingular, for example, have recently introduced “pay as you go” phones, the purchase of which requires no form of identification and includes direct

service to Mexico. The company has launched a nationwide promotional campaign and is focusing much of its efforts on states like New Mexico and Arizona.

Individual health insurance plans could be next. Already California Blue Cross/Blue Shield California has started accepting the matricula card, and Presbyterian Medical Services in New Mexico does not require a Social Security number to purchase one of its plans.

The fact that it’s all happening as the battle over immigration careens towards a confrontational climax is no coincidence. This new economy is the quintessential representation of just how patchwork US immigration policy has become.

Two competing bills pending in Congress illustrate the divisiveness of the debate.

One, introduced by US Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and US Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would grant temporary guest worker visas to undocumented immigrants and also expand channels for those immigrants to eventually gain legal status.

The other, introduced by US Senators John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., proposes tougher enforcement combined with a limited guest worker program and would require undocumented workers to return to their home countries and apply for the program from there.

Regardless of what happens in the halls of Congress, Maria and the millions of other undocumented immigrants like her continue to hope that somehow the matricula card, the ITIN and all the perks those documents have provided will eventually lead to the one, remaining piece of paper still missing: a certificate of citizenship.

“My family lives here. We own a home. We pay our taxes,” Maria says. “We just hope that one day all of this will make us legal.” SFR

Santa Fe Reporter

When it was founded in 1974, the Santa Fe Reporter's mission was to create lively competition for a stodgy and timid daily press. That tradition continues today. The Reporter investigates beneath the surface, presenting in-depth stories often overlooked or uninvestigated...
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