Many undocumented immigrants in the New Haven area have long carried their life savings in their pockets, unaware that they may be able to deposit their money safely in a bank. But now, local advocacy groups are spreading awareness about opportunities for immigrants to open bank accounts even if they do not have U.S. identification.

The advocacy group Junta for Progressive Action is promoting bank accounts for immigrants by attempting to convey the importance of the issue to leaders in the community how important and by utilizing direct public outreach to the affected residents, said Michael Montano ’03, economic development programs coordinator and Junta’s New Voices Fellow.

Montano said increasing awareness about the accessibility of bank accounts will help decrease crime in areas like Fair Haven, where the undocumented population is relatively high.

“What you have now is a situation where people are carrying around thousands of dollars in cash,” he said. “That makes them easy marks.”

Most area banks ask for two forms of identification, a primary ID with a photo and a secondary ID. Many Latin American immigrants are unaware that a Mexican driver’s license or a “matricula card” issued by the Mexican or Guatemalan government to citizens of their countries living abroad are both acceptable as primary forms of identification because they have photographs, Bank of America representative Diane Wagner said.

She said she understands that under the Patriot Act, neither a Taxpayer Identification Number, issued by the IRS to non-citizens so that they can pay U.S. taxes, nor a Social Security Number is acceptable as proof of identification. But many banks, like Webster Bank, will accept a resident alien card or permanent resident card, both of which have a TIN, as a form of secondary identification, said Willis, a representative at the bank who declined to provide his last name.

Advocacy groups are partly responding to a rise in crime over the spring and summer in Fair Haven, which targeted primarily undocumented immigrants, said Father James Manship of St. Rose of Lima Church in Fair Haven.

“We had a young man from Guatemala who was stabbed right in front of our conduit,” Manship said.

Montano said people should be aware that banking services are available with forms of identification that do not require U.S. Citizenship, including a municipal ID card.

Montano said making immigrants’ money more secure should contribute to a safer environment for the undocumented population, but he said it will not solve all of their problems with crime. He said the root of the problem lies deeper than the agencies and banks.

“These problems will crop up anyway where you have a population that is so drastically marginalized,” he said.

Wagner said services that claim to send money back to Mexico can be unreliable and charge large fees. Similar loan services, like instant tax refunds and pay-day check cashing agencies, also charge high fees for their services and high interest on the cash they distribute, Montano said.

But Bank of America is now offering a service to the undocumented population to help prevent losses due to predatory loan services. Wagner said the bank has expanded a previous program to make sending money to Mexico safer and more economical.

“We have had the program previously where it was a debit card product,” she said. “You would put money on a pre-loaded card and send it to Mexico.”

Bank of America’s program, now called Safe Send, allows money to be picked up at any one of 4,500 locations in Mexico and $3,000 to be sent over a 30-day period, Wagner said. If a checking account is opened in the United States, Wagner said, then there is no foreign exchange fee.