Two recent actions by a small Texas pizza chain and the country's largest retail bank have sparked a storm of controversy that has focused attention on the country's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.
In the first case, the Pizza Patron chain was criticized for letting customers pay with Mexican pesos during a monthlong promotion.
At the other extreme was Bank of America (BoA), the monolithic symbol of American capitalism. Nothing says staid and conservative more, yet it was that very icon of establishment that stirred up national attention when The Wall Street Journal reported it was offering credit cards to customers who don't have Social Security cards.
Some charged BoA and Pizza Patron with aiding and abetting illegal immigrants. Some even accused BoA of unwittingly supporting criminals and terrorists.
Both raise a compelling question: Should corporations and their marketers actively market to the country's 12 million estimated undocumented immigrants?
The fact is, neither action is new. Many retailers along the border (like Wal-Mart) have accepted pesos as payment for years. In fact, it was BoA that led the courting of Hispanic customers in 1990 by introducing bilingual checks and ATMs. Since then, many financial institutions have followed suit and have offered home loans without a Social Security number and let customers open other accounts with a foreign ID through the Matricula Consular program.
It is highly doubtful that any of these acts is a major factor in attracting undocumenteds to the US or encouraging them to stay. Nor should we expect planeloads of terrorists to descend upon the land, march into BoA offices, get in line, and fill out paperwork that could provide them with a $500 credit line. The bank complied with all federal regulations requiring customers to provide proper identification, which doesn't have to be a Social Security card.
The debate over the US' flawed immigration policy is contentious and hard to resolve. But fixing the broken system is the job of the federal government, not marketers.
As marketers, we should not have to apologize or defend our actions in serving immigrant populations, documented or not. Marketers can't be expected to act as de facto enforcers of ineffective immigration policies by pretending 12 million potential customers don't exist or by denying them services.
Undocumenteds represent perhaps as much as a third of the overall Hispanic market, a market that is now larger than all of Canada, with 41 million people and more than $800 billion in purchasing power. Companies that ignore this market do so at their own peril.
Those who make up the undocumented segment of the Hispanic population have come here for one primary reason: to work. They risk their lives to escape economic insecurity and seek a better life for their families.
In every sense, they are key contributors to our economic and social well-being. They buy homes and hamburgers. They visit parks and movie theaters. They attend church and aspire to send their children to college. They are, in short, a viable market segment.
Politics and marketing don't necessarily mix, and corporate America should not be drawn into the immigration debate. In their own disparate ways, BoA and Pizza Patron have looked at today's economic reality and made bold statements. Other companies would be wise to follow their lead.
John Echeveste is partner and cofounder of Valencia, Perez & Echeveste Public Relations.