BB&T Walks a Minefield on Immigration

The Southeast-based bank has been showing its sympathy for Obama's deportation relief.

Without scholarships, Natasha Morales, a 21-year-old double major in math and chemistry at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, might never have had a chance for a higher education.

She came to the United States at age 5 from Michoacan, Mexico, crossing the border with her mother without proper papers. As an undocumented immigrant, she wasn't eligible for federal financial aid for college, although she'd lived in North Carolina since kindergarten. The college was generous, covering most of the $26,000 tuition, but that wasn't enough.

Then, BB&T stepped in. The powerful banking company, with a strong presence across the Southeast, gives Morales $2,000 to $3,000 each year toward her education. "It's very helpful," she says. "This scholarship makes all the difference. My mom"—she supports three children on a $13,000-per-year kitchen-worker's salary—"definitely couldn't afford to pay for that."

The scholarship, which is administered by the Hispanic League, a nonprofit organization in North Carolina, is only an example of the bank's attentions toward young, undocumented immigrants. BB&T has held dozens of public forums to educate the public on a deportation-relief program since the Obama administration put it into place in 2012. Called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA), it allows young undocumented immigrants who meet certain age requirements and pass a criminal background check, among other preconditions, to stay and work in the United States without fear of being deported. Morales is one of the 664,000 foreign-born youths approved so far by the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services, and she has spoken voluntarily about her experiences at several of the bank's forums.

"I guess I could be a bit biased," she says, citing her scholarship, "but I've personally talked to other banks, and I don't see them trying to reach out to the Hispanic community nearly as much as BB&T."

Even so, enthusiasm for—or at least openness toward—the White House's immigration-friendly policy risks putting the bank in the path of a political firestorm. Republicans reacted with anger to President Obama's executive actions on immigration, which bypassed Congress in issuing reprieves on deportation starting in 2012. Obama further stoked controversy last November when he tried to add an estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants to the ranks of those eligible for deportation relief, an expansion blocked by the courts. Potentially riskier for BB&T, opinion polls suggest that half the public dislikes the idea of protecting immigrants who've arrived illegally.

The bank denies taking part in partisan debates. "We don't take a stand on things that are not related to the banking business specifically," says Luis Lobo, an executive vice president of BB&T and manager for multicultural markets. This may be especially wise in the Southeast, where anti-immigrant feelings run strong and where the bank, headquartered in Winston-Salem, maintains many of their nearly 2,000 branches.

Still, the potential benefits to BB&T's business may well be worth the risks. The proportion of foreign-born Americans has increased dramatically in the past 40 years, from less than 5 percent in 1970 to roughly 13 percent, according to the latest census data. A company known to be a champion of immigrants' rights can hope to attract their dollars.

BB&T wants immigrants to feel comfortable approaching the bank for financial services, according to Lobo. The discussions the bank has started about deportation relief have "been a way for us to reduce the intimidation level ... between the banking industry and these communities," he says. Typically, at each of BB&T's forums, an immigration attorney explains how the government's program works, and a beneficiary will tell her or his personal story—a signal that the bank won't discriminate against immigrants as customers or employees.

Indeed, BB&T prides itself on the diversity of its workforce. The bank hasn't sought out workers enrolled in the DACA program, Lobo says, but "any number" of them now work for the bank. As an immigrant himself, from Costa Rica, "that's become a huge fulfillment in my life," he says, "seeing that these folks aren't intimidated and are willing to apply for a job with BB&T."

The bank hasn't been shy about its sympathies on immigration. "BB&T has been very proactive in letting folks know what they're doing," says Monica Fuentes, chief service officer for the city of Atlanta, who worked with the bank on a forum in February. Unlike most information sessions, she notes, the event explained in detail how undocumented immigrants can use a bank account to show their presence in the United States, which is a requirement of the government programs to forestall deportation. Citigroup and Bank of America have also sought to build relationships with immigrant communities, but Fuentes says she's unaware of other financial institutions besides BB&T doing anything this aggressive around deportation relief.

BB&T officials insist that the main reason they reach out to immigrants is to educate the public. But they acknowledge they wouldn't mind if the freshly educated happened to open a bank account. They seem to have Yazmin Garcia Rico in mind. Now 26, she arrived in the United States from Veracruz, Mexico, without papers in 2002, and resides in Burlington, North Carolina. Authorized to work because of DACA, she spoke about her experiences at one of BB&T's forums.

"I don't have an account with them," she says, "but after that experience, I thought that I would really like to support them."