How one bank found itself in the middle of the immigration debate

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Devon Bank is equipped to offer mortgage banking seminars in Romanian.

Need literacy classes in Assyrian? You’re in luck. Urdu? Check. Greek? No worries.

Speaking multiple languages is a necessity for Devon Bank in Rogers Park, a neighborhood that’s reportedly the most diverse in Chicago. Staffers at the $264 million-asset Devon speak more than 30 languages, said David Loundy, the bank’s chairman and CEO.

The bank also offers specialized loan products for people from various religions, including Muslims and Orthodox Jews. Devon also wants to make the Money Smart program, a financial education effort from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., available in Arabic.

“If you want to have a mortgage processed in Gujarati, we can figure that out,” Loundy said. “A lot of it is driven by our customers. A lot of it is what they have asked us to do.”

Still, Devon’s business model puts it front and center in the national debate over how to handle immigrants, in terms of travel restrictions, deportation and accepting refugees from countries such as Syria. Many of the bank’s customers are worried.

“We have a lot of refugees in the area — some employees are refugees — and they’re wondering what message is being sent and what message they’re supposed to hear” from President Trump, Loundy said.

“The people we deal with are, by and large, those who are trying to integrate into their newly chosen community,” he added. “This kind of rhetoric doesn’t help. There are people who are afraid to travel. … There’s some people who have said, ‘Isn’t President Trump going to be great for banks?’ and I’ve said, ‘It depends on how many of our customers they deport.’ ”

For now, Devon has no choice but to stick to its knitting. It keeps a list of who speaks which language so it can serve a wide swath of customers. It also offers a noninterest financing program in 16 states, despite only having branches in Illinois and California.

“As long as there’s an unmet need, we’re trying to serve it,” said Loundy, whose father once served as the bank’s chairman.

The neighborhood’s history features an influx of European immigrants, notably Orthodox Jews, in the 1930s and 1940s. In recent decades, the neighborhood has become increasingly diverse as more immigrants have moved in.

Rogers Park has “always been a neighborhood in flux,” Loundy said, noting that 75 dialects are spoken at one of the local schools.

“It’s been known as a new immigrant neighborhood,” Loundy said. “People bring in people. … Right now it’s one of the largest Indian and Pakistani populations.”

Nazir Gurukambal, a senior vice president who has worked at the bank for 25 years, noted that the area consists primarily of people from Asia and Europe.

“This is a mini U.N.,” he said. “You can find people of all ethnicities.”

The neighborhood has several banks, said Bill Morton, president of the Rogers Park Chamber of Commerce.

JPMorgan Chase has two branches in the area. Associatied Banc-Group and BMO Harris each have a branch. Bank of America left an ATM in the neighborhood after closing its branch.

A number of competitors pulled out in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Loundy said.

Devon also has experience handling unusual client needs.

“You can have a closing where somebody wants to discuss with you in the hallway how to hedge goat prices in a religiously acceptable manner,” Loundy said. “Those kinds of conversations don’t surprise me anymore.”

Devon’s clientele typically triggers added scrutiny for compliance under the Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money-laundering laws. The bank files as many suspicious-activity reports in a month that many other banks submit in a year, Loundy said.

Devon has also been operating under a March 2013 written agreement with the Federal Reserve that bars it from paying dividends, distributing capital or redeeming stock without regulatory approval. The company was also required to provide written details about its sources and uses of cash and to provide the Fed with quarterly progress reports.

The bank has been able to stay focused on serving its market despite the added regulatory hurdles.

“They’re so connected with the community,” Morton said, noting that the chamber uses the bank for networking events. “They have a personal touch.”

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