updated 3/1/2007 5:02:59 PM ET 2007-03-01T22:02:59

When news broke that Bank of America Corp. was testing a new credit card available to customers who may be illegal immigrants, the reaction was predictably harsh.

Outspoken critics of illegal immigration called for a boycott and said the bank could be supporting terrorists and drug traffickers. Some outraged customers closed accounts and sent back their cards, chopped into little pieces. The bank’s chief executive, Ken Lewis, admitted that “finding oneself in the middle of a heated national debate is never pleasant.”

But Bank of America isn’t the first to offer such a card: Citigroup Inc. said it has done so for years, and Wells Fargo & Co. says it’s thinking about it. The cards are merely the latest progression for an industry that has spent millions to attract customers in the country’s growing Latino community — and among the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

They also reflect a fact faced by every retail business in the United States. While they can’t legally employ undocumented workers, there are few, if any, restrictions on welcoming them as customers.

AP
“As a business owner, you sell to whomever comes into your store. You sell to whomever buys from you online. It’s easy, normally,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. “Just in some cases where specific identification is needed, like in financial services, it’s more complicated.”

But getting less so. Last month, Bank of America said it had started a pilot program in the Los Angeles area late last year that didn’t require a Social Security number to sign up for a credit card. The Charlotte-based bank insists the card isn’t specifically designed to attract illegal immigrants, and says that so far, it has not.

The bank hasn’t decided if it will offer the card elsewhere, but it would likely be popular with a population that generally lacks access to something as common in most American wallets as the dollar bill and a driver’s license.

“It’s a no brainer. It’s a very large market,” said Jim Johnson, director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The bank is just the latest example of a major corporation recognizing the impact of doing business with Hispanics.”

In 2005, the nation’s 6.6 million illegal immigrant families had an average annual income of $29,500 and accounted for nearly $200 billion in purchasing power, a figure that’s only expected to grow, said Pew Hispanic Center demographer Jeff Passel.

“They are impacting the economy,” Passel said. “The unauthorized are explicitly coming for an economic basis.”

While credit card use among the nation’s 42 million Hispanics is on the rise, a substantial number of Latino households don’t have access to credit, according a survey conducted by the National Council of La Raza, which found that 80 percent of American households use credit cards compared with only 56 percent of Hispanic households.

For years, U.S. banks have made attracting immigrants a major focus of their business strategy, working to sell services that include everything from traditional checking accounts to wire transfers used to send money to relatives back home.

Customers don’t typically need a Social Security number to open a standard banking account. Instead, they can identify themselves by using an ID card provided by the Mexican Consulate to its citizens, known as a matricula consular, or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) issued by the Internal Revenue Service.

At Bank of America, the pilot program in Los Angeles allows customers to use such forms of identification to also sign up for a credit card. The card is similar to secured cards offered to those with poor credit: it requires customers to have an account with the bank that’s been in good standing for at least three months and comes with a reimbursable upfront fee of $99.

“This initiative lets customers build a solid credit history with a leading bank,” Bank of America spokeswoman Betsy Weinberger said.

Still, Camarota said most Americans don’t think businesses should go out of their way to cater to illegal immigrants. “Some say it’s bad corporate citizenship,” he said.

Critics of illegal immigration have said providing credit to illegal immigrants further embeds the population into American society. Many worry that without a Social Security number, the bank can’t be sure the card’s customers won’t use the credit for criminal activity, such as terrorism or drug trafficking.

“We just see this as another step to put our country at risk so they can make a few extra dollars,” said Rod Woodard, director of NC Listen, an immigration reform organization based in Cary, N.C.

The attention has rattled America’s largest retail bank. Lewis responded to the controversy in a column in The Wall Street Journal, writing the bank is complying with the provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which set up the guidelines that allows the bank to accept official identification sources issued by foreign governments — including the matricula consular.

“And I observe no shortage of irony in the efforts of those whose first concern is national security, but who seek to undermine a regulatory structure that was designed in large part to thwart terrorism,” Lewis wrote. He said only 16 percent of customers to sign up for the card so far lack a Social Security number.

“We believe we have an obligation to serve all those in our country who are legally eligible to receive services,” Lewis wrote. “To do less would be discriminatory and unfair.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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