An Unusual Public-Private Partnership Involving a U.S. Nonprofit and Mexico

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September 13, 2011; Source: Sacramento Bee | We can guess that this story is going to upset some people and delight others. We’re probably on the “delight” side of the continuum.

Bank of America has been something of a role model in the financial sector for reaching out to immigrants to help them set up bank accounts and establish credit. A few years ago, BofA became the target of a boycott for offering credit cards to people who lacked a Social Security number. Opponents charged that the bank was catering to “illegal immigrants.” (Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin was one of the leaders of the charge against the bank on this issue.) Actually, of course, what BofA was doing was quite legal. Immigrants holding a green card are typically issued an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) in lieu of a Social Security number, which they can use to report income and pay taxes.

Now, in Northern California, the Mexican Consulate in Natomas is working with the nonprofit ClearPoint Credit Counseling Services to offer financial workshops, education fairs, and one-on-one financial counseling for Latino immigrants. Along with other banks like Chase and Wells Fargo, BofA has set up a table at the consulate where it tries to sign Mexican immigrants up for checking and savings accounts. To establish these accounts, the banks require a passport or a “matricula” (an identification card issued by the Mexican government) and a proof of U.S. residency such as a utility bill. Beginning in October, ClearPoint will also have a bilingual staff person stationed at the consulate. Up to 500 Mexican nationals visit the consulate every day.

Developing a clean financial history is important for all immigrants, but Latinos have been especially at risk during the recession. The Bee reports that according to the Pew Research Center, “median wealth for Hispanics plummeted 66 percent from 2005 to 2009, compared with a 53-percent drop for blacks and 16 percent for whites.” The problem is exacerbated for Latinos, many of whom are “unbanked” because of a distrust of banks in their home countries or a perception, according to the Bee, that “bank accounts are money traps for hidden fees and charges.”

Linking the consulate with the banks and a solid nonprofit counseling agency seems like a good practice to us. What do you think?—Rick Cohen