Tancredo and First Data Corp debate immigrant remittance home
- June 27, 2004 -
Rep. Tancredo's proposals for immigrant remittances draw First Data Corp. into public policy debate
By Aldo Svaldi
Denver Post Staff Writer
First Data Corp. chief executive Charlie Fote and Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., are both the grandsons of Italian immigrants and consider immigration a critical public policy issue.
Their views just happen to be polar opposites.
First Data, based in Greenwood Village, earns billions of dollars a year from its international Western Union money transfer business.
Tancredo, a Littleton Republican who represents the 6th Congressional District in which First Data has its headquarters, has built his political career on ideas to control immigration.
He recently proposed taxing remittances - the billions of dollars that workers send each year from the United States to their families and friends in Mexico and other countries. Such a move could have hurt First Data's business.
Tancredo quickly backed off the trial balloon of remittance taxation and now recommends that U.S. foreign aid be offset by the money that workers in the U.S. send abroad. Fote and First Data oppose that proposal, as well.
Meanwhile, First Data employees have formed a political action committee that is funding pro-immigration candidates, including Tancredo's Democratic opponent in the fall election.
The political action highlights how First Data, once content to remain a behind- the-scenes player, is strategically and openly inserting itself into the immigration debate.
"In the end, political support is a matter of choice, and we will support the individual who we believe best reflects the interests of our business and this district," Fote said in an e-mail to The Denver Post.
Tancredo counters that his intent with the remittance tax proposal was not to harm First Data, which employs 2,700 people locally and expects to pull down $10 billion in revenues this year.
"Really and truly, it had nothing to do with them," Tancredo said. "I did not purposely do anything to hurt their bottom line. Nobody was talking about taxing Western Union or First Data."
"Voices weren't being heard"
The skirmish with Tancredo is just one in a series of moves by First Data to shape the country's ongoing public policy debate over immigration.
"We selected immigration reform as our jumping-off point because it's an issue that's important to a very large customer group, and we felt their voices weren't being heard," Fote said.
First Data is Colorado's biggest company by market capitalization, valued at $38.5 billion. It provides back-end transaction processing for more than 3.5 million merchants and has the country's largest ATM and debit-card network.
It's the world's largest provider of money transfers - through its Western Union subsidiary - with 188,000 agent locations in 195 countries.
In March, Fote spoke at the National Press Club and unveiled a new $10 million First Data Empowerment Fund to help immigrant communities and foster an "enlightened" discussion of immigration.
Fote argued at the time for more humane treatment of immigrants and for eliminating the backlog in families wanting to move to the U.S. legally.
Fote is personally hosting a series of immigration reform forums across the country, including sessions in Chicago on July 21 and in Denver on July 22.
The company is testing a Business Information Clearinghouse in Denver to assist Latino entrepreneurs and is working on initiatives to teach families in developing countries how to leverage the funds they receive from relatives abroad.
STATE OF REMITTANCES
About 10 million Latin American- born workers in the U.S. send a total of $30 billion back to relatives each year. Here's how much is sent from the top 10 states.
� California: $9.6 billion
� New York: $3.6 billion
� Texas: $3.2 billion
� Florida: $2.5 billion
� Illinois: $1.5 billion
� Georgia: $947 million
� North Carolina: $833 million
� Arizona: $606 million
� Virginia: $586 million
� Colorado: $544 million
Sources: Bendixen & Associates, Inter-American Development Bank
The moves have earned accolades from immigrant groups, who point to First Data as the only Fortune 500 company willing to take a public stand on the subject.
"First Data is very courageous and proving to be a gallant leader in our community," said Polly Baca, executive director of the Latin American Research and Service Agency in Denver. "They are addressing one of the most critical issues in our state and nation."
Baca said that First Data has brought various sides of the immigration debate together without trying to push the dialogue in a predetermined direction.
But one direction that First Data's side of the dialogue will most likely never go is toward Tancredo's position of stronger limits on immigration to the U.S.
Tancredo proposed placing a 5 percent tax on remittances last month after reading a Washington Post article detailing how individuals in the U.S. send $30 billion a year in remittances to Latin America.
"If the report is correct, even a small levy on remittances could generate millions or even billions of dollars for things like better border enforcement," Tancredo said in May.
Fred Niehaus, First Data's senior vice president of public affairs, said Tancredo's tax proposal surprised the company and challenged its interests.
Tancredo said that he doesn't design policy based on the interest of any single company, even if that company is the largest in his district.
"We don't do business that way," he said. "We don't go to corporations first and say I am thinking about this. You try to think about what is best for the country."
However, Tancredo has shelved that plan in favor of a legislative proposal that would reduce U.S. foreign aid by the money a country receives in remittances.
A blessing or a curse?
More than 60 percent of the 16.5 million Latin American-born adults living in the U.S. send money back to their home countries about once a month, averaging about $240 per disbursement, said Sergio Bendixen, a Florida pollster who researched the topic for the Inter-American Development Bank.
Of the $30 billion total estimated to be sent by those individuals annually, about $544 million comes from Colorado, Bendixen said.
By comparison, USAID, the agency responsible for directing foreign assistance, requested $805 million in next year's budget for the entire region.
Bendixen argues that remittances benefit both the countries receiving them and the U.S., a position that First Data supports.
"The only way you are going to curb illegal immigration to the U.S. is to foster the economic development of Latin America," he said.
Tancredo disagrees, and argues that remittances actually encourage illegal immigration. There are an estimated 8 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In some countries, money transfers represent the largest or second-largest source of national income - even ahead of tourism, Tancredo said.
Nations that get large flows of money from abroad have less motivation to address high unemployment rates and to foster economic self-sufficiency, Tancredo said.
As a result, he says, those foreign governments encourage workers to cross the U.S. border illegally and drain billions of dollars from the U.S. economy.
Executives at First Data's Western Union, which transferred 14 percent of the $151 billion in global remittances last year, see it differently.
It's a key reason why First Data Corporation Employees for Responsible Government, the political action committee, was launched a month ago, Niehaus said.
The committee has raised $22,500 so far, with contributions given to candidates including President Bush; Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah; Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.; and $2,000 to Tancredo's Democratic opponent this fall - Joanna Conti.
Conti calls First Data's support "very significant" and criticized Tancredo's stance on immigration issues.
"This is his crusade, not the district's crusade," Conti said. "Our immigration policy is broken. Most people would agree that we need to return to a more sensible policy."
Conti most likely stands little chance of winning a district where 46 percent of voters are registered Republicans and just 23 percent are registered Democrats.
Tancredo handily beat his Democratic opponent Lance Wright in the 2002 election, winning two-thirds of the vote.
That may be why Tancredo doesn't view Conti as a threat to his serving a fourth term and takes First Data's overt opposition in stride.
"I live in a live-and-let-live world," Tancredo said. "I want them to do what they need to do. I have to do what I have to do."
A risky endeavor
Niehaus admits that First Data's reputation could suffer if the immigration reforms backed by the company fail.
While corporations may take public policy positions that serve their interests, they don't often confront public officials in the open.
"It is rare that you hear about these things coming out and happening," said Katie Kimberling, director of operations at Wilson Research Strategies in Oklahoma City.
Larry Sabato, director of the nonpartisan University of Virginia Center for Politics, said a company wouldn't challenge a sitting member of Congress lightly.
"When you challenge a politician who has significant power in the majority caucus, which Tancredo does, you are taking a chance," he said.
Shareholders could balk at the company's activist position, and so could people who agree with Tancredo's stance.
Corporate America isn't behind enforcing existing immigration policies, said Craig Nelsen, director of ProjectUSA, a group opposed to accepting foreign identification cards to open bank accounts in the United States.
"There is no money in enforcing immigration law," Nelsen said. "It is all in the other side, in circumventing it, increasing it or turning a blind eye to it."
Fote counters that immigrants strengthen the U.S. economy, diversify the social fabric of society and must be treated fairly.
In the past, First Data has focused primarily on growing its business, but it now is in a position where it can advocate for its customers, who often have no one to take their side, Fote said.
"Sure, we risk criticism from those people who disagree with our work in the area of immigration reform," Fote said. "We're prepared to face that criticism, but the fact is we believe what we're doing is the right thing to do."
Staff writer Aldo Svaldi can be reached at 303-820-1410 or asvaldi@... .
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed by HispanicVista.com (www.hispanicvista.com) without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)
The news is to be reported not to sway opinion. No more melodrama of constant entertainment trivia on news time. The founding fathers knew that government is always corrupt, that is why they gave us civil liberties. The people must lead to survive corrupt governments. Read the constitution. (In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this includes information for research and educational purposes.) Al Soto (c) 2004
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