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RIVERSIDE, Calif. – What started as local coverage of a new branch opening at Altura CU last week snowballed into an illegal immigration protest covered by CNN. Altura Credit Union (formerly known as Riverside County’s CU), which serves Riverside and San Diego counties in California, as well as select communities in Orange and San Bernardino counties and has some 100,000 members, was picketed March 26 as a result of its policy to accept a Mexican Matricula Consular as an acceptable form of ID for new members. The credit union was a target of a protest by immigration activist group Citizens’ Alliance for a Secure America (CASA), headquartered in Southern California. The group charges that Altura’s acceptance of the matricula card promotes illegal immigration. And as if a protest outside a branch wasn’t bad enough, a film crew from CNN arrived to cover the event. The coverage was aired March 28 on Lou Dobbs Tonight, as part of the anchor’s ongoing segment entitled “Broken Borders,” which focuses on immigration issues. Altura President/CEO Mark Hawkins said he couldn’t comprehend why his credit union’s policy, common among banks and credit unions in many states, deserved national coverage. “We are frustrated that so many news organizations view this as a newsworthy item, when we really don’t feel that it is.” Use of the matricula identification is supported by the California Credit Union League, according to League spokesman Mark Lowe. “We have been in favor of credit unions having the option to accept the matricula since we stated our position on this issue in 2003, and our position has not changed,” Lowe said. According to the League, at least 25 credit unions in California accept the matricula for new account identification. Matriculas are also commonly accepted among credit unions in Texas. Altura’s Hawkins said he is confused why CASA chose to protest the credit union, which isn’t breaking any laws. “We said in our prepared statement that this is a Federal Government problem, not a state of California problem, and certainly not a credit union problem,” Hawkins said. “These people need to be demonstrating against the Federal Government, not our credit union.” He continued, “They don’t like the fact that the U.S. Government doesn’t have control over its Southern border, and we know people enter the U.S. illegally. But we’re a credit union that’s operating within the laws of California and the U.S. Government, and as long as that’s true, it’s hard to justify what their argument with us would be.” Lowe agrees. “As far as we’re concerned,” the League rep said, “It’s not an immigration issue, it’s a service issue. Credit unions strive to serve all members within their field of membership. It’s the mission of credit unions to move people who are left out of mainstream financial services into the mainstream.” Lowe added that many immigrants who don’t maintain accounts at financial institutions are frequently targets of crime. “Robbers prey on people in a cash-only economy,” Lowe said, “because they know they carry large amounts of cash on them, or have it in their homes. This is also a safety issue.” The protest and ensuing CNN coverage started innocently enough in February, when the $660 million Altura opened a branch in Coachella, Calif., a town on the Eastern edge of the greater Palm Springs metro area. “Coachella is about 98% Hispanic, with many Mexican immigrants and migrant workers,” Hawkins said. “We were only the second financial institution ever in the town, and the first consumer institution, since the other is an agricultural financer.” Hawkins said that while covering the branch opening, local press asked if the credit union would be accepting matriculas as a form of ID for new members. Altura has allowed the use of matriculas since 2003, and the Coachella branch would be no different, Hawkins said. But when the fact was reported in local news coverage, immigration watch groups took note. Letters to the editor began to appear in local papers, which eventually led to the organized protest. When interviewed by CNN, CASA founder Arne Chandler said only illegal Mexican immigrants have use for the matricula documentation. However, Hawkins takes issue with Chandler’s assertion. “To say all this representation that those who use a matricula are illegal aggravates me, because it’s simply not true. In fact, they are very likely legal immigrants,” Hawkins said. He added, “this group is just making an example of citizens of Mexican heritage, and to me, that’s just discriminatory.” The Hispanic population is a considerable percentage of Altura’s field of membership. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 36% of Riverside County respondents identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino. “Our charter is to serve people of all origins who live, work, attend school and worship in this area. This is what we’ve been organized to do,” Hawkins said. “Use of the matricula is our right within the law, and we’re doing nothing to jeopardize the credit union in any way.” With all this publicity, it would seem that the credit union is opening a number of accounts using the controversial form of ID, when in fact, it is not. “We bring in 1,400 new members per month, and to my knowledge, nobody has gotten in using a matricula,” Hawkins said. “The issue is just that we would accept it, were somebody to present it to us.” The credit union learned of the protest and corresponding CNN coverage a couple days before the event, so they had some time to prepare. Management trained branch staff for the event by preparing a talking points sheet for interaction with members, and making it clear that only Hawkins and Ricki McManuis, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Business Development, were to speak with the press. They also communicated that protesters were within their rights to protest, as long as they stayed on public property and did not trespass. “In recognition of the protestors, they were civil,” Hawkins said. “It was aggravating that they were there, but there was no violence or name calling. They behaved themselves.” Hawkins also reported that the credit union did not feel the need to hire extra security for the event, or that employees felt threatened in any way. CNN crews did interview a few members, but Hawkins said “they were totally supportive of us.” Hawkins said he doesn’t think CASA will stop demonstrating against financial institutions that accept matriculas. “They picketed against Bank of America and Wells Fargo in December,” Hawkins said, “And certainly it would appear they look for different opportunities to be heard. Who will be next? I have no idea, but I’m sure it will be someone.” Hawkins concluded, “This issue is not going away. When cultures collide, there will also be issues.” -

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