Josseline Hernandez was 14 when she died of exposure in the Arizona desert—seven miles north of the Mexican border and two thousand miles from her home in El Salvador. She was traveling with her 10-year-old brother to Los Angeles, where her mother lived and worked in the shadows as an undocumented or “illegal” migrant. Her father worked in Maryland. Her brother eventually reunited with his mother, thanks to the assistance of others.
Josseline was one of 183 migrant workers whose bodies were found in two southern Arizona counties in 2008. That number was surpassed in each of the following two years. Josseline’s story is one of many from the Arizona borderland recounted by journalist Margaret Regan in her book “The Death of Josseline.” And while the tenor of Regan’s book is unquestionably sympathetic to the plight of migrant workers, she doesn’t proselytize. She simply tells the stories.
If nothing else, Regan provides anecdotal context to a massive problem that requires rationality and reasonableness to solve rather than the anger, fear, and stubbornness that dominates the debate. Nothing creates more partisanship than the confounding debate over America’s immigration policy. There are many prudent economic, social, and political resolutions that would restore a semblance of sanity to an increasingly insane situation, but the political will to find common ground simply doesn’t exist.
Perhaps it never will, but the nation would benefit from secure borders, a comprehensive guest worker program, reformed visa policies, and a pathway out of the shadows for the 12 million or so undocumented workers.
Among the beneficiaries would be credit unions. They need compliance guidance for serving the undocumented, but too often come up empty-handed when they ask for help. This is a particular problem when an undocumented migrant legally opens an account with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and later applies for a loan. Too often, the loan officer sees a Social Security number on a pay stub that an ITIN holder is not allowed to have. The Internal Revenue Service issues ITINs regardless of immigration status. Resident and nonresident aliens may have federal tax return and payment responsibilities under the Internal Revenue Code.
So what’s a credit union to do? Ask its staff to become immigration enforcement officers? Is the credit union obligated under the Bank Secrecy Act to file a Suspicious Activity Report? Those reports are intended primarily to uncover money laundering activities and terrorist financing, not a hardworking mom who needs a car. As the staff liaison to CUNA’s Hispanic Outreach Committee, I’ve heard how emotions surrounding illegal immigration can even divide a credit union’s staff.
It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum. The absence of leadership usually means different solutions—some good, some bad—bubble up at different times. A good one is Café Justo, a cooperative that started as a faith-based initiative to provide its founders, coffee growers, roasters, and other employees an economic incentive to stay home. That’s what most would prefer.
Contrary to the myth prevalent north of the boarder, most undocumented workers risk dangerous and expensive border crossings to find low-wage employment due to economic necessity, not to live luxuriously off our welfare system.
Café Justo is a success, which has bred additional small businesses that employ Mexicans at home. But it’s not the solution to the broader problem. Credit unions ought to insist that their lawmakers come together and forge a reasonable and rational immigration compromise the nation can live with and prosper under.
It’s not an issue unrelated to the long-range goal credit unions have to increase market share and membership. But at a minimum, we all ought to be ashamed that young girls such as Josseline are left to die in the desert.