Sung, a Chinese construction worker, was turned away by Abacus Federal Savings Bank’s Flushing branch when he tried to open an account with his passport and a photocopied Chinese ID.
"I really don't understand," said Sung, a native of Liaoning Province who overstayed his visa. "I am putting my money in the bank, not borrowing money. Are they afraid that I would run away?"
To most immigrants, opening a bank account means the first step towards a better life, whether that means buying a house, sending their kids to college one day, or sending money back home.
But to undocumented workers like Sung, opening a bank account is getting more difficult these days.
One of the purposes of the U.S.A. Patriot Act that Congress passed in 2001 was to deter money laundering by potential terrorists. The unintended effect was to deal a big blow to many community-based banks whose customers include a large number of undocumented immigrants.
The new regulations went into effect on October 1, 2003, and banks now must keep clients’ information such as birthdates, passport numbers, alien identification card numbers, and report any suspicious transactions to the authorities.
According to an employee at a New York Chinese-owned community bank, who requested anonymity, they are more careful when reviewing applications and require at least two pieces of photo IDs with address verification. Their old policy only required one piece of ID.
“It takes so many steps and about three times the efforts to open an account now,” the employee said.
According to the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily, the new rule has affected 10,000 people in New York’s Chinatown and as many as 10 Chinese community banks that mainly serve the undocumented Chinese workers there.
The new rule also had a profound impact on money transmitters like Western Union, a nationwide agency that can deliver money transfer within minutes.
“Our business had gone down since we adopted the new Patriot Act regulations,” said a clerk, surnamed Chang, at the Western Union agency on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, who requested her first name not to be revealed. She said the agency had adopted the new regulations in June and set a limit of $2,000 per person a month on money transfer.
Many immigrants complained about the tightened regulations. Some of them turned to their friends with proper documents for help.
An undocumented Chinese worker, who is surnamed Zhao and a native of Jilin Province, asked his friend to wire money for him, which has become a common practice among undocumented immigrants. “The limit of the amount is too low at Western Union. It’s easier to ask a friend to do it,” he said.
While passports still remain the most widely accepted foreign identification, China and other countries with a sizable undocumented population in the United States are considering giving their nationals residing overseas, both legally and illegally, a wallet-size ID card called “consular ID”. The move came following Mexico's successful re-launching of "matricula consular”, which is now accepted by 150 banks in 13 states for opening bank accounts and applying for driver's license.
Mexico's “matricula consular” program, first introduced more than a century ago, has gained immense popularity after the 9/11 attacks. The document is now available in 47 consulate offices across the United States for a minimal fee of $28. Mexican citizens with birth certificates and proof of U. S. address can apply. The card is currently recognized as an official identification by more than 900 police departments, and 100 cities, according to the Mexican Consulate in New York.
Guatemala, which receives about $1.3 billion from its citizens living overseas, began a similar program in September 2002. Its eight consulates in the United States have issued more than 35,000 Guatemalan consular ID cards at $27.5 a piece so far. Other countries that are planning similar programs include Peru, Honduras and Poland.
Critics of those ID cards said acceptance of consular ID cards might create national security issues as it encourages illegal immigration.
“Next we may see the Chinese or Egyptian governments doing the same thing,” said Steven Camarato, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
A native of Taipei, Taiwan, Larry Tung, a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and video artist, is a frequent contributor to the Citizen.