Commentary: Big business courts undocumented workers for a reason

The Sacramento BeeFebruary 2, 2012 

All of us benefited from the work and toil of Luis Martinez, until the day they called the cops on him and he found himself in a New Mexico jail facing deportation.

His 34-year-old life of family and industry was shattered, everything he had worked for gone.

But let's state something clearly right away. Martinez is undocumented. He came from Mexico to Sacramento in 1993 as an impoverished teenager who didn't have the money to pay for a visa or the years to wait for one to be granted to him.

Once here, Martinez washed dishes. He worked his way up to short order cook and then supervised other kitchen workers. He married, had American-born children, bought a house, paid his income taxes, property taxes and sales taxes.

His employers benefited from his sweat, toil and the low wages paid in the restaurant industry, which depends on cheap labor just as the hotel industry, agricultural industry and many other industries do.

Martinez would have loved to have traded on his hard work for a chance to establish legal residency in the U.S., but without immigration reform, there is no way to do that without returning to Mexico.

Who cares, right? That's how many Americans feel about the undocumented.

But consider this:

The case of Martinez illustrates why immigration flows continue, despite all the people angry at law-breaking immigrants who don't "play by the rules."

Big business is getting paid off the backs of immigrants like Martinez.

Major banks actively encourage business with immigrant communities and design rules requiring immigrants only to show identification from their native land to open accounts.

Since 2002, for example, Bank of America has allowed Mexican immigrants to do some business with the bank while showing only identification obtained from Mexican consulates.

"Reports have stated that in some cases, illegal immigrants are able to sign up for the bank's products and services. These reports are true," Ken Lewis, BofA's former chief executive officer, said in a 2007 Wall Street Journal commentary.

The U.S. Federal Reserve has a similar program.

Why do business with these folks if some might be illegal?

Fox News reported in 2010 that more than $21 billion was sent from the U.S. to Mexico. That's billion with a "B."

Martinez had been a Bank of America customer since 1996. One day 11 months ago, he got a call to go to his branch in Marysville, where he now lives after residing for years in Sacramento, to discuss his accounts.

It was so routine, Martinez took his 6-year-old daughter with him.

When he arrived, the police were called. He was detained in an office at the bank branch, he said. When his daughter asked him if he could take her to the bathroom, bank employees said no.

A male employee took the child to the bathroom outside of Martinez's presence, he said.

As he recounted this to me last week – the sight of his daughter being led away by a man he didn't know – Martinez cried tears of rage.

Through a spokesperson, Bank of America declined comment.

The authorities in Marysville never pressed charges of forgery, which is what Martinez was accused of.

During a routine background check, his undocumented status was discovered and he soon found himself in a federal immigration jail in New Mexico.

He spent two weeks in jail, and his deportation case, so huge is the backlog, is set for June 2013.

He was fired from his job for his unexcused absence. He fell behind in his Bank of America mortgage payments because of his lost wages.

The bank was going to foreclose on his house until Luis Cespedes and Hank Greenblatt, both Sacramento lawyers, intervened. They filed a complaint on his behalf in federal court in San Francisco alleging negligence, discrimination and other civil rights violations.

Greenblatt is a lawyer with one of Sacramento's biggest law firms – Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora. It's the same firm that represented victims of the Pacific Gas and Electric blast in Rancho Cordova and has routinely won massive judgments.

Martinez's case raises the question:

Do you want your local bank manager acting as a de facto immigration agent who reports customers to the authorities?

The implications go far beyond any one bank.

Americans are angry about illegal immigration and many want those immigrants deported, but banks take the money of illegals and many industries benefit from their labor.

The U.S. won't allow hardworking people with clean criminal records to establish legal residency and they can be denied due process and be deported, even if the authorities won't prosecute them following their arrests.

Oh, and according to Martinez's lawyers, Bank of America is still holding his money.

"I've lost everything I worked for," he said to me the other day. "They've taken everything."

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