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Group wants banks to accept immigrants

Hispanic residents fear being robbed, banking industry scared of funding illegal activities

Sharon Hill remembers hearing about a Hispanic woman who was robbed of $10,000. The woman stashed the money under her mattress to save for a down payment on a home because, as an undocumented immigrant, she couldn't find a bank that allowed her to open a bank account. One day, she returned from work to find her house trashed and her life savings gone. But she was too scared, Hill says, to face authorities and file a police report. So she just chalked the devastating robbery up to a setback in life.

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"This woman just needed a bank account," says Hill, executive director of Georgia Appleseed, a public interest law group. "This is a public safety problem for all people, regardless of their immigration status."

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Many of Georgia's Latino immigrants who carry cash are preyed upon because most of them don't have bank accounts. That's because many local banks hesitate to open accounts for non-citizens — even though no federal law hinders it. Financial institutions fear that if they accept foreign IDs from immigrants to open an account, they could possibly be aiding terrorists or drug money launderers.

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But it's just as unsafe for the more than half a million Latino immigrants in the state, with a collective buying power of about $10 billion, to be unable to protect their earnings with an account or checkbook.

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Georgia Appleseed is trying to change that.

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On Sept. 5, the group will host a banking panel in Moultrie, 25 miles away from where a string of robberies in Tifton occurred last fall, culminating in the brutal murders of six Hispanic migrant workers. (The attackers beat the men with aluminum bats as they slept in their trailers.) Appleseed will show local financial institutions and their attorneys that the public-safety needs and economic benefits outweigh the risks of allowing immigrants to bank.

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To drive home that point, they've invited a Mexican Consulate coordinator to speak on the security features of the Mexican ID, a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation community affairs officer, and Tennessee banker Robert Byrd.

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In 2004, Byrd noticed a large number of Hispanics cashing their checks on Friday afternoons. He knew he'd prefer them to be account holders instead of mere check cashers. So he attended a Federal Reserve conference and soon learned that he could legally allow non-citizens to open accounts. "We're not in the business of enforcing immigration law," Byrd says. "The regulatory authorities blessed it, and it seemed to be the right thing to do."

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Today, about 14 percent of Byrd's 20,000 checking account holders are Latinos. And he hopes other banks will follow in his footsteps. In recent years, the United Americas Bank in Roswell has specifically courted the Latino community and has approximately $75 million in deposits, while El Banco de Nuestra Comunidad (The Bank of Our Community) has more than 10 branches in the metro Atlanta area.

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"There's a tremendous amount of opportunity for this population to start saving, get a loan, buy a car and a house," Hill says. "But it can't be done without financial security."

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For more info on Georgia Appleseed's Latino financial access project, visit georgia.appleseeds.net.



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