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Nonprofit tests bank cards for workers
Sunday, February 25, 2007


A New Jersey nonprofit is at the forefront of a nationwide effort to grant special bank cards to low-wage workers, including immigrants, regardless of their legal status.

The New Labor Center in New Brunswick, a workers center with a largely immigrant clientele, is piloting a device called the Sigo card, developed by the Newark-based company I.T.D.

Sigo acts as a kind of pre-paid debit card that workers can use to deposit money directly into an account and cash checks, or send duplicate cards to family members so they can withdraw remittances directly from an ATM in their country, at a better rate than money transfer agencies.

"The idea was, could we save workers money, provide a secure place to put their money and get them on an asset-building path," said Janice Fine, a Rutgers labor relations professor who helped developed the program with The Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C.

Sigo cards cost $4.95, and have a $2.50 monthly maintenance fee, a portion of which is paid in dues to the nonprofit agency that issues the cards, in order to fund the programs that assist the workers.

The nonprofit Sigo card initiative coincides with recent efforts by for-profit financial institutions to make inroads into the largely untapped -- and growing -- purchasing power of immigrant communities.

Nabor Balbuena, a day laborer in Passaic, got a Bank of America Visa card last year through a special program that doesn't require applicants to have a Social Security number. With help from the community group ACORN, he filled out an application using his Mexican birth certificate as identification.

"It seemed like a good idea to have an account and try to save something," he said. "But I don't understand if they take fees from me or not, and I haven't done anything with the account for four months because the work situation has been bad."

Programs like the Bank of America credit card have caused a firestorm of criticism from groups opposed to illegal immigration.

"We think that it is a mistake to adopt any policies that accommodate the presence of people illegally in the country. That is clearly what the Bank of America policy is doing," said Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Others looking at these initiatives in the context of the immigration reform debate say that financial institutions may be positioning themselves to capitalize on the potentially enormous market that could result if the country's nearly 12 million illegal immigrants are granted a path to legalization.

"The legalization process for millions of people will be extremely expensive," said Gustavo Ramirez, head of the Passaic-based Immigration and American Citizenship Organization. Ramirez estimates the process could cost at least $5,000 per person just to go through the legalization paperwork.

"When you talk about a potential 11 million people taking advantage of it, all of whom will need financial services, it begins to look attractive," he said. "I think banks are getting ready to take advantage of this huge potential business."

Reach Samantha Henry at 973-569-7172 or henrys@northjersey.com.

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