Wire Firm a Force in Debate Over Immigration

Chris Hawley, Arizona Republic (Phoenix), Mar. 19, 2006

MEXICO CITY—Every two weeks, Nayeli Toxqui pushes her baby stroller down Insurgentes Avenue, past the whizzing taxis and the wheezing buses, and joins a line of people near a yellow-and-black Western Union sign.

“I’m picking up money from my husband in Chicago,” she said one recent morning, peering at the cashier’s booth dispensing money at the back of the Elektra appliance store. “I don’t work, so you could say I depend on la Western.”

So do millions of other families and their migrant relatives. And in turn, Western Union depends on them, as it rides a 10-year wave of immigration to record-high profits.

So perhaps it is no surprise that the world’s biggest money-transfer company and its parent firm, First Data Corp., are quietly becoming a force in the debate over illegal immigration and border security.

In recent years, Denver-based First Data has openly campaigned for immigration reform, which could legalize millions of undocumented workers, and has created a $10 million “Empowerment Fund” for the same purpose.

It has held seminars on migration law, published how-to guides for migrants, sponsored English classes, given money to a charity that helps Mexican women whose husbands are in the United States, and showered immigrant-sending communities with aid.

First Data has stepped up its political donations in recent years. It also “directly, actively” fought against Arizona’s Proposition 200, a First Data official told the Mexican Senate in 2004.

Critics accuse the company of encouraging immigrants, both legal and illegal. Supporters say the company is just trying to connect with customers, and that First Data’s actions have little effect on migration.

“The economic forces that are driving immigration were not created by First Data,” said David Landsman, executive director of the National Money Transmitters Association, which represents wire-transfer companies.

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To win points with customers, First Data has launched programs to help migrants and their families back home.

The efforts include a series of immigration-law seminars called “Western Union La Ley,” and a directory of immigrant resources called “Pasaporte a los Estados Unidos” (Passport to the United States).

The company also sponsored the printing of 300,000 guides telling Salvadorans how to apply for the U.S. Temporary Protected Status program. The program gave legal residency to 248,000 migrants following two earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001.

In 2000 the company formed the First Data Western Union Foundation, which is funded by First Data, its employees and its agents in other countries.

The foundation has given out more than $16 million, funding everything from seminars on home buying for migrants in Broward County, Fla. to English classes at the Chicago and San Antonio campuses of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

It gives money to a legal aid groups and organizations like the Massachusetts-based Immigrant Learning Center, which along with running English classes, produces studies “promoting immigrants as assets to America,” according to one of its reports.

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In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the foundation gave $250,000 “to provide assistance to women living alone because their husbands are working in the United States,” according to a foundation news release.The money helped women build small gardens in their back yards to raise extra money, said Narcedalia Ramírez Pineda, the vice president of the AYU Foundation, which operated the program. Women were taught how to install drip-irrigation systems and raise poultry, and some of the money went toward building a greenhouse.

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The foundation made headlines by funding a 56-page booklet for migrants called “A Survival Guide for Newcomers to Colorado.”

The guide included legal tips such as, “It’s not the job of the police to report you to Immigration,” and listed banks where migrants could open accounts with only an ID card issued by the Mexican consulate.

The guide infuriated border-control advocates. In a broadcast last year, CNN newsman Lou Dobbs called the guide a “how-to guide for illegal aliens.”

Soon afterward, the Colorado state government yanked the guide from one of its Web sites and replaced it with an edited version.

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First Data also has stepped up its campaign donations. The company has spent $247,000 on federal elections since 2001, compared to $145,000 in the five years before that, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A political action committee, First Data Employees for Responsible Government, has donated $128,000 since it was formed in 2000. And that’s not counting hefty donations by individual executives. Fote and his wife, for example, gave $46,800 to 32 federal candidates between the beginning of 2000 and Fote’s retirement in November.

Most of First Data’s beneficiaries are members of the Senate and House committees on banking and financial services. Much of the money also has gone directly to the Republican and Democratic parties in the form of “soft money” donations.

Left out of the largesse: Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, one of the most vocal immigration-control activists, who also happens to be First Data’s hometown congressman. First Data, its PAC and many of its executives gave money to Joanna Conti, his Democratic opponent, in the 2004 election.

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