Legal Immigrants Sue Wells Fargo for College Loans

With U.S. discrimination against immigrants making world news Monday, noncitizen college students filed a federal class action against Wells Fargo bank, accusing it of refusing them student loans though they are legally in the United States.

Mitzie Perez is one of roughly 665,000 residents of the United States who has been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The program protects qualified applicants from deportation if they were brought here as children and have clean records. They may apply for and be granted work permits good for two years, which can be renewed.

“Wells Fargo, an American multinational banking and financial services holding company, outright refuses to extend loans to individuals who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents,” the complaint states, adding that such practices violate federal civil rights laws.

Perez is a junior at the University of California, Riverside. The California League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, signed on as co-plaintiff.

Perez says she searched for student loans on Wells Fargo’s website in August 2016. After answering a few questions, one of which asked whether she was a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, a denial message popped up: “Thank you for your interest in a Wells Fargo student loan. However, based on information you provided, we do not have a student loan option that meets your needs. This could be due to the school you selected, your field of study, and/or your citizenship status.”

Perez hit the “Back” button on her browser and changed her response to “I am a permanent resident alien.” She received information about obtaining a student loan through Wells Fargo, with a note at the top of the screen saying she was required to provide a U.S. citizen co-signer.

“I tried to obtain a student loan from Wells Fargo because it was a bank that said it worked with the Latino community, but they denied me a loan because of my citizenship status, not my credit history. That’s wrong and I don’t want others to face the same problem,” Perez said.

Proof of citizenship is unnecessary when applying for a loan, as banks are supposed to only verify the applicant’s identity and assess their risk, according to the complaint. Perez says she could have provided Wells Fargo with any number of documents to prove her identity and fulfill the bank’s Customer Identification Requirements.

“There is no federal or state law or regulation that restricts banks from providing financial products to customers because the customer is an alien,” the complaint states. “Under federal law, alienage is merely one factor among many used to verify enough information to confirm the true identity of the customer.”
Perez says she had to pay for her tuition with credit cards.

Many members of co-plaintiff LULAC, like Perez, are DACA recipients. Among their attorneys is the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, or MALDEF.

“All students should be treated equally in accessing the loan assistance needed to complete a university education,” MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas Saenz said in a statement.

“The nation and California have a dire need for educated workers, and discrimination that impedes the expansion of that educated workforce is against the public interest and should be promptly eliminated.”

Perez seeks to represent a nationwide class of people who since Jan. 30, 2013 were “denied the right to contract for a loan or other financial product by Wells Fargo because they were not U.S. citizens despite satisfying Wells Fargo’s CIP [Customer Identification Program] requirements.”

In addition to class certification, Perez and LULAC seek damages for violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act, unfair competition, and alienage discrimination.

She also wants Wells Fargo enjoined from continuing to deny student loans to non-citizens.
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The numerosity of the class should be ascertainable by examining Wells Fargo’s records, plaintiffs’ attorney said.

“We will certainly seek and believe plaintiffs are entitled to records to identify the putative class,” co-counsel Ossai Miazad, of New York City, said in an email.

Miazad is with Outten and Golden, of San Francisco, the lead law firm. Also representing the plaintiffs are Jahan Sagafi with Outten & Golden in San Francisco; Patrick David Lopez of Washington, D.C.; and Saenz, with MALDEF’s office in Los Angeles.