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A move to spur migrants to go to the bank

Concerns rise that illegal immigrants working in the US are robbery targets.

By Julie Blase Special to The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 2001



AUSTIN, TEXAS

They don't exactly move in international circles of high finance, preferring to tote their life savings in a dungaree pocket rather than wire it to bank accounts abroad.

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But their suspicion of central banks and paperwork may be making America's migrant labor force - especially Mexican nationals - targets of crime.

Four young Latinos - all from south of the border - were killed here in Austin last year, in each case as they were being robbed. Now, police here and elsewhere express a growing concern that criminals are targeting illegal immigrants because of their preference for pockets over banks.

A recent arrest in Austin underscores the point. A would-be robber, arrested while threatening some Latino men with a baseball bat, reportedly told police: "Everybody knows they always have a lot of money on them."

"Friday afternoons [after pay day] are pretty dangerous, not only in Austin but in many cities in the United States," says Dick Ensweiler, president and CEO of the Texas Credit Union League.

But getting traditionally bank-wary immigrants to stop carrying around wads of cash - and to use deposit slips and checkbooks instead - is harder than it might seem. Two-thirds of Mexicans have no experience using banks in their native country, and they tend to view banks in general with suspicion. Moreover, most undocumented workers lack identification, such as a foreign passport, needed to open a bank account in the US.

That is beginning to change, though. Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, recently said he wants Mexicans in the United States to feel safer about sending money home, which could help break the link to crime.

Of course, smoothing the way for cross-border financial transactions also stands to benefit Mexico. Each year, Mexican workers in the US send about $6 billion in earnings back home - Mexico's third largest source of income after oil and tourism.

Already, some US businesses are responding to President Fox's request. In December, MoneyGram began an instant transmission service, allowing as much as $10,000 (the legal maximum that can be sent at one time) to be wired to Mexico for only $15. Some credit unions in California and Texas now offer wire transmission services to their members for less than $10 per transaction, Mr. Ensweiler says.

That's a significant improvement over traditional industry fees, which run from 6 to 20 percent of the amount being wired. Those costs are sometimes not fully disclosed to customers, but cheaper means of transmission, such as the postal service, bus shipments, or a friend who acts as personal courier, all have drawbacks.

Money orders sent via the mail often don't arrive at their destinations unless disguised as an annual birthday card, says Margaret Strong, a native Texan who helps employers in the Austin area find immigrant labor. More frequent "birthday cards" attract the attention of corrupt postal workers, she says.

Some bus companies will transport packages into Mexico, but the boxes must be unsealed so Mexican border agents can check the contents for illegal guns. Cash can be hidden in the boxes, but is easily stolen, Ms. Strong says.

Whenever cash flows across international borders, US law enforcement has concerns about money laundering. The challenge is to allow legitimate money to flow safely, but not to permit an increase in criminal transfers of dirty money through legitimate businesses. The average monthly remittance from the US to Mexico, $240, is an amount that suggests legitimacy, says Don Clemmer of the special crimes division of the state attorney general.

Many Mexicans in the US, to avoid the fees, corruption, and uncertainty connected with sending money south, rely on friends to act as informal couriers. Up to $2.8 billion a year may be hand-carried to Mexico - a situation ripe for criminal exploitation.

Although the scope of the problem is hard to pinpoint (police don't track the nationalities of robbery victims), Sgt. Mark Balagia of the Austin Police Department says illegal immigrants are frequent targets of robbery. City police departments in the US are not obliged to report illegal immigrants to federal authorities, and most such attacks go unreported, he says.

"Most [of the victims] look on robberies as an occupational hazard, just part of being here illegally," Sergeant Balagia says.

Benito, in Texas legally for eight years and owner of a housecleaning business, seems to take the dangers in stride. He recently had more than $5,000 in his pocket to take to Mexico for families of friends from his Austin church. "I just act like I don't have anything," he shrugs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society