Banks are anteing up to defeat a ballot initiative that would deny government services to undocumented immigrants, concerned that it would make all immigrants, even legal ones, frightened to seek banking services.
Wells Fargo & Co. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. are among companies that have pledged or donated funds (the amounts are undisclosed) to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, one of the lead organizations opposing Proposition 200, which will appear on the state's November ballot.
The proposition would require anyone in Arizona seeking to vote or applying for state or local "public benefits" to show proof of U.S. citizenship. Government workers who do not report suspected undocumented immigrants to officials could be fined $750 and sent to jail for four months.
Virginia Abernethy, a spokeswoman for Protect Arizona Now, the main proponent of Proposition 200, said that even though it may not stem illegal immigration, it would stop undocumented immigrants in the state from enjoying some of the rights and benefits that should be reserved for citizens.
"There's a good deal of evidence that illegal aliens have been voting, and we want to stop that," Ms. Abernethy said. "Also, illegal aliens are costing the state about $750 million a year in medical expenses that are not federally mandated, which means treatments for medical emergencies. That's $750 million a year the state could save if this proposition is passed."
The measure has broad voter support. According to a poll by The Arizona Republic this month, 66% of likely voters support and 15% oppose it.
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce has assembled a coalition of businesses, nonprofit immigrant advocacy groups, and politicians, including Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, to defeat the measure, which they say is too vague.
The coalition contends that because Proposition 200 does not specify which "public benefits" are covered, the phrase could be construed to include all state and local government services that are not federally mandated, including police and fire protection, vaccinations at health clinics, garbage collection, and library use.
Denying these services could not only harm individuals but end up costing the state and local governments millions in additional administrative costs to verify identities when rendering those services, the coalition says.
Banks have also joined the coalition because they could lose business from immigrants of all types if the proposition is passed, said David A. Howell, Wells Fargo's vice president of government and community relations in Phoenix. Wells is one of many banks that actively markets to Hispanics.
"Immigrants would be scared away from anything that looks or smells like anything official, including banks, which have a much closer relationship to governments in many of the countries immigrants come from," Mr. Howell said. "It's already a challenge to reach out to that community and get them to engage in financial services here, because banks were not trusted where they came from, nor were they seen as being interested in serving average persons."
In addition to being put off from depositing money in checking accounts or taking out loans, immigrants might also refrain from sending remittances to their families in their native countries, Mr. Howell said. Wells, like other banks, is working to get more of the growing remittance business from nonbank competitors. Latin American immigrants sent home $30 billion last year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a 30% jump from 2001.
Mary Jane Rogers, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase, said in an interview this week that the proposition's success would also stymie efforts by Congress and the Bush administration to enact more "thoughtful" immigration reform that would not harm Arizona's business climate.
"We think this has the potential to create a politically extreme environment, which can affect the state's tourism and convention business, as well as the state's efforts in attracting new businesses," Ms. Rogers said. "We almost had the Super Bowl pulled from us in the 1990s because we were one of the last states to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a holiday."
The July purchase of Bank One Corp. gave JPMorgan Chase the No. 1 deposit share in Arizona. JPMorgan Chase Bank still operates there as Bank One.
Its opposition to Proposition 200 made the bank the target of a boycott effort last week by state Rep. Russell Pearce, a Republican. Ms. Rogers said she has received about a dozen phone calls from people around Arizona asking her about the bank's position but that the boycott does not seem to have caused a drop in business.
Robert Gnaizda, the policy director at the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, Calif., said that upon his urging, 18 California banks - including some that do not have Arizona branches - have either pledged or donated money to the chamber's efforts to defeat Proposition 200.
"They know that this is really the start of a nationwide fight, and it's anti-immigration all around," Mr. Gnaizda said. "It is designed to be a template for initiatives in 22 other states, and it is likely that an Arizona success will lead to a broad range of anti-Latino and anti-legal immigration efforts as well."
Ms. Abernethy, who is based in Nashville and is the chairwoman of the national advisory board for Protect Arizona Now, said a number of interested parties outside Arizona hope to support future initiatives in other states.
She also confirmed that the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington helped finance the petition drive to get the proposition on the ballot.
Mr. Gnaizda said FAIR led unsuccessful efforts to bar government agencies and banks from providing services in any language other than English.