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Laredo banker fears immigration backlash
[June 06, 2006]

Laredo banker fears immigration backlash


(San Antonio Express-News (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 6--In the past 40 years, Laredo's International Bancshares Corp. has grown from a small city bank with less than $1 million in assets into an international financial services powerhouse with more than $10.3 billion to its name.



Its secret: Mexico. The country's maquiladoras, entrepreneurs and laborers are some of IBC's best customers.

But depending on how the United States handles immigration legislation, IBC Chairman and Chief Executive Dennis Nixon fears that could change.


"Mexico is not a country that won't eventually be offended by all of this action," he said, specifying a U.S. government proposal to fence portions of the country's southern border.

"For the whole South Texas area, it would be catastrophic if we had a policy that tried to shut down our trade relationships and business relationships with Mexico." Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, IBC has developed a reputation as a leading regional NAFTA banking institution. Overall, Nixon estimates 35 percent to 40 percent of IBC's business is Mexico-related.

"Our business is heavily dependent on border trade and activities related to Mexico," Nixon said.

Last year, 28 percent -- roughly $1.86 billion -- of IBC's bank deposits originated in Mexico. Among IBC's international services are checking and savings accounts, wire transfers, investment accounts and letters certifying creditworthiness.

Serving clients on both sides of the border for more than 30 years, Nixon has emerged as one of the country's most outspoken business leaders on immigration policy.

He has appeared on television and radio, testified before members of the U.S. Senate, and addressed many crowds such as the one he spoke to during an immigration forum here last week.

His message is consistent: With America's growing demand for labor coming at a time when the domestic labor supply is shrinking, why not welcome hard-working immigrants so they can help the economy grow?

"A country that's been founded on immigrants like the U.S. has, we should clearly have a better idea of what immigrants provide to this country," Nixon said. "Look at me. I'm a company that's gone from a handful of employees to more than 3,000, but if we don't address immigration, eventually I'll lose my customers. That'll affect every single person in this business." Nixon insists racism is what's really fueling the immigration debate.

"The white milk of our society is turning brown, and some people don't like it," he said, explaining that his immigration opponents are "driven by a desire to keep Mexicans and the Hispanic culture out of the country." Most of IBC's shares are owned by Hispanics, according to Hoover's, a market intelligence provider. Many of its customers also are Hispanic, but it is not the only bank with a stake in the country's immigration debate.

At San Antonio-based Frost Bank, about 6.9 percent, or $641.2 million, of its deposits in 2005 originated from customers in Mexico, according to the company's annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Some of the country's largest banks, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America, have been working to woo more Hispanic customers -- an estimated 35 percent of whom don't yet use banking services-- by hiring more bilingual tellers, making it easier for Mexican immigrants to open accounts and making it cheaper to transfer funds to foreign countries.

"Our relationship with the Latino community dates back over 150 years," said Ral Lomel-Azoubel, Wells Fargo's vice president of Latino relations. "We are committed to serving the Latino community just as we do any other community." The company, which now has a bilingual financial education Web site at www.handsonbanking.com, began advertising in Spanish in 1852.

"Serving and supporting the Latino community allows us to grow and to better meet our customers' financial needs," Lomel-Azoubel said.

Still, no bank leader has been as vocal an immigration proponent as Nixon. He credits his 35 years of living in Laredo with making him so outspoken on the issue.

"We're at the old proverbial front lines of this debate," Nixon said. "When you live the immigration issue every day like we do, you can't avoid being concerned about something that could disrupt your business."

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