The Elm City ID card was established in May in part to facilitate the process by which undocumented immigrants can open bank accounts. But interviews with local banks indicate it may not have had its intended effect.
Amid confusion over federal policy toward cards such as New Haven’s, banks in the Elm City have declined to accept it as sufficient primary identification — and even in some cases a secondary identification — when residents apply for accounts, an investigation by the News has shown.
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Meanwhile, general ignorance of banks’ varied policies prevents many undocumented residents from opening accounts.
Despite these limitations, they are still able to open accounts at some New Haven banks by presenting consular identification cards, which do not require proof of legal status in the United States.
But even though the cards may not be helping many residents open new bank accounts, community activists said they will continue to educate city residents about the card in the hopes that it will promote public safety and help traditionally marginalized groups feel more integrated into the city community.
Some aldermen interviewed said they were surprised to hear that no bank in New Haven currently accepts the Elm City ID — which about 3,200 residents have obtained — as a primary form of identification. But both they and local activists said they are not overly concerned because the new ID card was designed primarily to engage a community that is often overlooked.
City officials said they know of only two banks in New Haven — Sovereign and Chase — that accept the Elm City ID card, although representatives from Wachovia and Bank of America said they also currently accept the municipal identification.
But all four banks accept the card only as a secondary form of identification, which can also be established with a utility bill or major credit card, employees said. Applicants at all the banks must first provide a primary state or federal identification such as a passport, a driver’s license or a military ID.
Although federal law does not allow consular IDs — which are available to residents regardless of legal status — to be used for driver’s license applications, it does not prohibit holders of the card from using it to open bank accounts.
Undocumented immigrants can open — and have always been able to open — accounts at Sovereign and Chase by presenting either a valid foreign passport or a consular ID, employees said. At Wachovia, a consular ID may be used as identification, but only after a resident has already provided other identification to open the account, a bank representative said.
Joe Gomes, the branch manager at the Sovereign Bank in Fair Haven, said the implementation of the municipal ID did not provoke any major changes in the way the bank does business.
“What we are doing now, we’ve always done,” Gomes said, “We didn’t look at the Elm City ID as an exception to [our previous] policy.”
Gomes said Sovereign has always had a good working relationship with local, immigrant-rights groups in Fair Haven.
Because people often are unaware of what forms of identification are accepted, the bank is currently working with the Junta for Progressive Action — a nonprofit Latino advocacy group — to inform residents that consular IDs can be used in the same manner as a foreign passport, he said.
Discrepancies exist within individual banks as well.
Jeffery Enos, an officer at Citizens Bank, initially said the only form of identification acceptable for non-resident aliens is a driver’s license, military or state ID, or a foreign passport.
But after finding a line in the Citizens written policy stipulating that the Mexican Matricula Consular is acceptable as a form of primary identification, he said that in his eight years working at the bank, he has never known of a single person who has used consular identification.
But if someone were to use a consular identification, he said, a secondary ID, such as an Elm City ID, would not even be necessary.
According to its Web site, Bank of America also has a national policy that allows immigrants to open personal checking accounts using the Matricula Consular.
Keshav Jha, the local manager of Bank of America’s Broadway branch, said the Elm City ID “doesn’t have any impact” on how customers open personal accounts. Company spokesman Ernie Anguila, in Boston, said Bank of America accepts the New Haven municipal ID as secondary identification.
Employees at Chase expressed surprise at learning that the company accepts consular identification cards as a primary ID — they had to flip back and forth between the pages of a printed copy of the policy to make sure they were not confusing the columns explaining primary and secondary identifications.
Kica Matos, the city’s community services administrator, said the discrepancies between different bank policies is one of the reasons that working with banks to convince them to accept the municipal ID card — even as a form of secondary identification — is so important.
Standardized rules about acceptable forms of ID across banks would make community education simpler and would lessen the chance that any resident would arbitrarily be prevented from opening an account, she said.
She said she is delighted to hear that Wachovia and Bank of America are accepting the Elm City IDs — but that it was news to her. Just last month, she said, immigrants were turned away from a Bank of America branch when they presented their municipal identifications.
“Because different banks accept different forms of identification, it’s important for people on the margins to have the greatest number of resources possible at their disposal,” she said. “We want to make it easier in whatever way will help.”
Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar, who was unaware that the city’s ID could not be used as primary identification, said that while the Elm City ID might seem superfluous if it can be used only as a secondary form of identification, there are more reasons for its implementation than the purely economic.
“Giving this to the average resident, it’s empowering — not to have to fear being deported,” Lamar said. “This helps engage a large number of residents on the fringes of our community.”
Gomes said Sovereign considers the ID program primarily a means of promoting public safety. Having an ID card may encourage immigrants to report crimes to the police without fear of revealing their immigration status, he said. Allowing undocumented immigrants to open bank accounts easily should also reduce crime because card holders will no longer have to carry around large amounts of cash.
“If it makes sense from a business and a security standpoint, we’re going to do it,” Gomes said of the company’s policy-making practices.
Although a man opened an account at Sovereign using a Mexican passport and a municipal ID card over the weekend, not all banks have witnessed greater demand for new accounts since the implementation of the Elm City ID program, Gomes said.
Jeanie DeLoughery, the branch manager at Chase Bank on Church Street, which also accepts the municipal card as secondary identification, said the Elm City ID has not brought in many new customers.
“Honestly, I have not had a lot of people open new accounts [with a municipal identification],” she said. “I could probably count them on one hand.”
Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said that while a utility bill might seem like a surefire method of secondary identification, he said such forms of identification sometimes do not work — if, for instance, a utility bill is issued under someone else’s name.
Laura Huizar, program coordinator for economic development for the Junta for Progressive Action, said the organization is working “slowly and hopefully” with local banks — especially in Fair Haven, which is home to a large number of immigrants — and the statewide Connecticut Bankers Association to educate New Haven about the benefits of Elm City ID program.
The Connecticut Bankers Association did not return calls for comment.
Representatives at many banks that do not accept the card said their companies’ legal advisers construed the USA PATRIOT Act to prohibit the card. While most said it was prohibited only as a means of primary identification, others said the act prohibits its use as a secondary ID as well.
But Matos said that while USA PATRIOT Act regulations require that the primary identification be a photographic ID, the law leaves it up to banks to decide what is acceptable. And even accepting foreign passports leaves a gap because more immigrants have a Matricula Consular than a foreign passport, she said.
“Should we be doing more? My answer is absolutely,” she said. “This is not an end stage, it is only the beginning. … We will continue to work with banks until every bank with a branch in Connecticut accepts the Elm City ID card as a primary form of identification.”
Since some banks accept the card without any legal ramifications, Huizar said she does not think banks would run into federal legal issues for accepting it, although she acknowledged that each bank has its own internal policies.
Some bank officials whose institutions do not accept the municipal card said banks that do join the program could run into problems if they are audited, especially if they eventually accept the card as a primary ID.
At New Alliance Bank, which also has a branch in Fair Haven, Senior Vice President and Director of Community Development Banking Paul McCraven said the bank is deliberating on the legality of the matter in consultation with CBA.
“It’s something we’re deciding, but we haven’t made a final decision,” he said. “There’s been a meeting with the mayor and the city on the process they use to issue the cards, to discuss how the card would be used in terms of regulatory compliance issues.”
Matos said the city hopes to have distributed 5,000 municipal ID cards by the end of the year.