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Quietly living American dream

No laws broken as illegal immigrants obtain loans, buy homes

This 48-year-old man from Colombia is an illegal immigrant who owns a home in Boston, works full-time, and pays taxes. This 48-year-old man from Colombia is an illegal immigrant who owns a home in Boston, works full-time, and pays taxes. (PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF)

He lives in a two-bedroom house hard by the highway in Boston, with flowers out front and a grill in the back. He has raised two children, bought two cars, and filed federal and state income taxes every year.

He blends seamlessly into his neighborhood, except for one thing: This particular homeowner, with his 1,875 square feet of US soil, is an illegal immigrant from Colombia, one of possibly hundreds of thousands of such people nationwide who have grabbed a piece of the American dream.

Their very existence, now coming amid increasing attention on illegal immigrants from Washington policymakers, has sparked new calls for crackdowns on home lending, even as so many illegal immigrants are rising into the middle class and embedding themselves into their communities.

Critics of illegal immigration find it preposterous that unauthorized immigrants can own homes, calling them risky investments for banks. Immigrants counter that many of them are more stable than people think, and they are fueling investment in cities and towns.

"This place is full of people like me," said the man, 48. He spoke on condition that his name not be published because it is easily found in the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds, and he fears immigration officials would track him down. "They have houses because the banks gave them a loan."

Although they lack legal residency, the immigrants find ways to build credit and buy homes: They take jobs, pay bills, open bank accounts, and sign up for credit cards. Many even file tax returns each year using their real names, addresses, and identification numbers issued by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS generally does not share the information with federal immigration agents.

Nothing in federal law prohibits illegal immigrants from owning homes. And banks can legally accept passports, tax identification numbers, and consular cards from people who want to open bank accounts or get home loans, according to the Comptroller of the Currency, a bureau of the US Treasury that regulates national banks.

The Boston homeowner from Colombia said a convergence of events allowed him to buy a $400,000-plus home through a Spanish-speaking broker in 2004.

First, he said, he obtained a real Social Security number and Massachusetts driver's license from the government in the early 1990s before security crackdowns. Then, he worked three jobs: making pizzas by day, cleaning office towers at night, and delivering soiled hotel linens to the laundry on weekends. To build credit, he opened a bank account and applied for Bank of America and Discover credit cards, which he always pays in full.

On the day he bought the home, he said, he paid $4,000 as a down payment, plus fees. Because of the low down payment, he said, he had a high interest rate of 7.8 percent, which he later lowered by refinancing.

Now, he just cleans office towers from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. five days a week, netting $3,000 a month. He said he covers the $2,400 monthly mortgage with his salary, rent from a tenant, and help from family members who live with him.

He says the effort is worth it, and that he is confident that he can pay back the loan.

"The money you spend on rent is money that you lose," he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Rent is a waste."

Another homeowner in a seaside town in Eastern Massachusetts, a 50-year-old construction worker here illegally from Ireland, said he used an IRS taxpayer identification number to buy a home worth nearly $400,000. Two years ago a friend referred him to a small, local bank that welcomed foreigners. Like the Colombian man, he said he pays all his taxes to the government.

"We're not sponging off the citizens of the United States," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm not a citizen, but I'm doing my part as a citizen."

Critics accuse banks of using legal loopholes to essentially sanction illegal immigration, and fear that immigrants who cannot speak English well - or who aren't financially savvy - would be easy prey for unscrupulous lenders.

US Representative John T. Doolittle, Republican of California, sought to crack down on loans to illegal immigrants this year when he pushed legislation to ban government-sponsored enterprises from giving out residential mortgages based on IRS taxpayer identification numbers.

The requirement passed the House in May as an amendment to another bill and is pending in the Senate.

"It just sort of makes a mockery of our system," Doolittle said. "You can own a piece of the American dream without being here legally."

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the national Federation for American Immigration Reform, criticized mortgage lenders and others for selling loans to people who could be deported at any time. "It's another example of business ignoring the impact that illegal immigration has on society because they think they can make a buck off it," he said.

Mortgage bankers say they comply with federal laws, and often require additional records, such as letters from employers, to assess whether a borrower can repay a loan.

"It's not our bank members' job to determine immigration policy," said Corey Carlisle, senior director of government affairs at the Mortgage Bankers Association, a national organization representing more than 3,000 companies. "But . . . they don't want to make a loan to somebody that's not going to be able to repay it."

Lawyers and others say homeownership reveals a different side of illegal immigration - that of immigrants, often in low-income communities, paying taxes and often lowering crime.

"They're the same as everybody else. They don't want to keep paying rent," said lawyer Chris Lavery of the Irish Immigration Center, based in Boston. "People who are illegal immigrants live next door to you."

The man from Colombia said he and his family feel welcome on their block. The house is small but comfortable, with a dishwasher, microwave, and big-screen TV. On weekends, he likes to fire up the grill and share a beer with neighbors. He recycles paper and cans, like everyone else. A good-service award from the pizzeria he used to work in decorates his living room wall.

Buying a house in Boston was not part of the plan when he arrived in the early 1990s. Instead, he and his family scrimped to build a $70,000 three-bedroom flat in the Colombian city of Medellin, with sparkling views of the city's hills.

He returned to live there in 1997, but could not find work. Within months, he was back in Boston.

He still owns the apartment in Medellin, but had to rent it to someone else.

"Sometimes I feel like selling that house," he said, with a grin. "Then I would buy something [else] here."

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