Aliens: A Little Less Alienated

While some states crack down on illegals, more are making their lives easier

When Luis Chiliquinga moved from Quito, Ecuador, to suburban Maryland in 1996, he followed a path well-worn by millions of illegal immigrants before him. He doggedly worked a $13-an-hour construction job that paid in cash, sometimes racking up 20 hours of overtime per week. Initially, he could afford to rent only a small apartment for his wife, son, daughter, two grandchildren, and himself. Because he arrived in the U.S. without a visa, Chiliquinga didn't qualify for a Social Security number, which would have allowed him to open a bank account, apply for a credit card, or buy a house. So the Chiliquingas lived in legal limbo for five years.

But life in the gray economy has become easier for Chiliquinga. Three years ago, he used his Ecuadoran passport to apply for a tax identification number, something the Internal Revenue Service issues principally to non-U.S. citizens who pay taxes regardless of their legal status. That allowed him to open a checking account at Chevy Chase Bank and begin establishing a credit history. In early 2002, he used both documents to buy a four-bedroom townhouse, taking out a $122,000 mortgage from Accredited Home Lenders Holding Co. (LEND ), a national subprime mortgage lender that had begun making loans to illegals. "We can't do anything without I.D.s and bank accounts," says Chiliquinga, who became a legal resident last year.

This experience typifies America's increasingly conflicted impulses about how to cope with the 9 million-plus immigrants who live in the U.S. on a more or less permanent basis. On one hand, post-September 11 security concerns have prompted some states and federal agencies to crack down. Last November, one of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's first moves in office was to repeal a law granting illegal immigrants access to driver's licenses. Three other states, Alabama, Florida, and Virginia, are working with the Homeland Security Dept. to deputize local police to arrest illegals they run across in the course of routine police work. Three more states have bills pending that would deny in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students. In Washington, D.C., and several states, some politicians and anti-immigration groups are pushing legislation that would deny illegals public services such as schools and health care and require local police to enforce the nation's immigration laws to the letter.

Yet, at the same time, there's an even larger groundswell of efforts by states, municipalities, and many businesses to integrate illegals into mainstream America. Most of the undocumented population is here to stay and even pay taxes, such as Social Security -- though they rarely collect it. So, reason officials, it's best to stop pretending otherwise and help lift them out of the shadows. So far, 11 states issue driver's licenses to illegals, and Florida may follow suit: In early April, Governor Jeb Bush endorsed a bill to do so there. Hundreds of cities and local police departments accept a Mexican government-issued I.D. called the matricula consular as valid for everything from bank accounts to driver's licenses. Meanwhile, a growing number of financial institutions allows the undocumented to get mortgages and open accounts using the matricula or IRS identification.

"COGNITIVE DISSONANCE". It all adds up to something close to de facto legalization, despite the cross currents. The growing political clout of Hispanics, who make up the bulk of illegal immigrants, led President George W. Bush to propose a partial amnesty program early this year. Its prospects are uncertain after conservative complaints that it would reward illegal behavior, but the ground-level efforts to achieve something similar will probably continue. Nonetheless, immigrants also face continued scrutiny. "There is cognitive dissonance on the the part of the federal government; it's helping undocumented workers in some areas but enforcing immigration laws in others," says Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington research group.

The conflicting strains are most apparent with driver's licenses, the cornerstone document for illegals to build a life in the U.S. matricula holders can get them in the 11 states that accept it, while a few states grant licenses to those with the IRS I.D. But most require papers available only to those here legally, such as passports or Social Security numbers. The issue is highly divisive at a time when national security experts are trying to stamp out easily available illegal documents such as those used by the September 11 terrorists. Indeed, last year, 119 bills on the subject were considered in 40 state legislatures. About half would have made it easier to get licenses or ratified the existing rules; the rest would have stiffened requirements. In Florida, Governor Bush is trying both to boost security and to ease access by insisting that illegals verify their identity and submit to fingerprinting to get a license. Overall, the outcome is a muddle. "Until the [feds] deliver a solution, the states are left handling it," says Ann Morse, director of the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The matricula may be equally controversial. First issued in 2002 by Mexican consulates in the U.S., the document includes name, address, and a photo. Nationwide, more than 900 cities and municipalities and 943 police departments recognize it, according to the Mexican Consulate General in New York. A year ago, the U.S. Treasury even endorsed the matricula's use as a way to encourage illegal immigrants to open bank accounts. But critics say such policies encourage more illegal entry. "It's the beginnings of a piecemeal illegal alien amnesty," charges Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research group that advocates tougher policies.

Still, Corporate America seems to have decided that it can't ignore millions of consumers, even illegal ones. Some 150 banks, including at least 19 major ones such as Bank of America Corp. (BAC ), now encourage illegal immigrants to use the matricula to open accounts. Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC ) is setting up 23,000 new matricula accounts a month nationwide, according to Shelley Freeman, Wells Fargo's regional president for Los Angeles County.

The debate over how to deal with illegal immigrants has bedeviled the country for years. Opponents would like to declare welfare, schooling, and public health care off limits, and after September 11, efforts to do so intensified for a while by bringing security concerns into the equation. But now, the trend to accept immigrants' presence as a fact of life seems to be prevailing. It may present new challenges for addressing security, but given the sheer size of the illegal population, there may be little choice.

By Brian Grow in Atlanta

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