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16.2.07

Bank Of America, 501(c)3

The latest from Snopes is the true story that Bank of America will begin offering credit cards to people without social security numbers, which would include illegal immigrants. One of the hyperventilating email forwards that Snopes was responding to is rather funny:

Bank of America is now giving credit cards to Illegal Aliens without any identification! They say that they want to get more of the Hispanic population to bank with them! What the hell is happening to this country? The next thing you know Illegal Aliens will be allowed to run for President! What part of 'ILLEGAL aliens' don't they understand? And why do we have to cater to them, especially when we have 'AMERICAN CITIZENS' who are in much more need of help then they do? This is an outrage!!


Bank of America is apparently now a charitable organization, which should make its business decisions based on who needs their help more. I'm just trying to puzzle out how keeping the bar on credit cards for people without SSNs would enable the bank to help citizens more. This program is expected to turn a profit for Bank of America (or else they wouldn't do it), and every citizen has a SSN which they can use to obtain a credit card with a better rate than the no-SSN ones.

The second email Snopes cites makes a surficially rational argument, saying that enabling illegal immigrants to get credit cards makes it easier and more attractive for them to stay in the US. This argument is interesting in that it shows how deeply the anti-immigrant discourse is rooted in the Egalitarian or Communal Sharing cultural model (as described respectively by Mary Douglas and Alan Fiske). These models stress placing a strong boundary between Us and Them, and the importance of cutting off relationships (in this case, commercial ones) with Them so that They do not infiltrate and pollute Us.

The "Bank of America is a charity" email brings out the "positive" side of Egalitarianism and Communal Sharing. Anti-immigrant discourse tends to focus on the "negative" side of boundary maintenance*. But that boundary maintenance is linked to an ethic of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need" among Us.

Heck, I might as well do a whole Cultural Theory analysis of the immigration debate. The anti-immigration position is, of course, largely Egalitarian. Nevertheless, it draws at times on Hierarchist rhetoric, stressing the centrality of the fact that illegal immigrants have broken a rule and need to be put in their place. Taken to its extreme, however, the Hierarchist position leads not to a border fence but to things like a guest worker program and a highly differentiated set of statuses between "illegal" and "citizen" (as was seen in the former German system). Hierarchists would also be especially concerned about the inefficiency and rights violations in the detention and immigrant-processing system (whereas a pure Egalitarian would tend to say "who cares how we treat Them -- They shouldn't be in this country in the first place). Individualists would be the classic libertarian open-borders crowd. But an open-borders position can also be Egalitarian, if one extends the boundaries of Us to encompass all of humanity, and then reconceptualizes immigration as one way of providing for the needs of some of our fellow global citizens. Then there are the Fatalists like myself, who doubt that immigration flows can be stopped (or increased), at least within any reasonably policymaking horizon. The Fatalist goal is then to look at the facts on the ground (e.g. "Jorge is here in the US") and mitigate or improve their impacts on people's well-being (e.g. by giving him some sort of status and rights so that he is not exploited or used as a tool to hurt citizen workers).

These emails make me feel a bit bad about my plans to cancel my Bank of America credit card -- I feel like I should write them a letter saying "this isn't about the immigrants thing, it's about the ridiculous interest rate you stuck me with."

*This is not to say that boundary maintenance is always "negative" in the sense of "morally bad." Boundary maintenance includes both xenophobia and maintaining the integrity of "safe spaces" and other autonomy/self-rule arrangements. Boundary maintenance, like any other item in the social structure building set, becomes morally good or bad depending on its impacts on the welfare of Us and Them, which is in turn largely a function of the power relations involved.

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