Eduardo Peña and his wife moved out of Chicago last year to start a family together.
Like countless other newlyweds arriving in the suburbs, the couple quickly realized they’d need a second car to get them to work and fit the children they hope to raise.
Last fall, Peña, a tax manager who said he has been living in the United States for 25 years, went online to apply for an auto loan from Wells Fargo (WFC) to finance the purchase of a used Land Rover.
“Everything seemed good — until my immigration status came up,” Peña told CNN Business.
A Wells Fargo representative told Peña by phone that the loan application had been rejected because his status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was set to expire during the loan period, according to a lawsuit Peña filed against the bank this week.
Under DACA, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children are permitted to legally work for a period of two years, subject to renewal. This group, known as Dreamers, receives Social Security numbers and federal work permits.
“It was very unfair,” said Peña, who is 30 years old. “I’ve been in the United States for a while. I’ve proven I can take on that financial situation through my income.”
Peña, who was born in Mexico and obtained DACA status around 2012, filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo earlier this week arguing that the bank’s alleged policy of denying DACA recipients credit is “discriminatory and unlawful.” The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Northern California, is seeking class-action status.
Wells Fargo, which is based in California, has not responded in court yet.
In a statement provided after this article was published, Wells Fargo said that individuals with DACA status do not meet its auto underwriting policy. For Dreamers, the bank said it offers “secondary financial products,” including a secured credit card and secured personal loan.
“Wells Fargo is deeply engaged with nonprofits and stakeholder groups to expand our financial support and partnership with the Hispanic community,” the bank said, adding that it “remains focused on our responsible lending practices to assist temporary and permanent residents and US citizens in obtaining financing.”
The lawsuit was filed by a law firm that launched a separate legal fight against Wells Fargo two-and-a-half years ago for allegedly failing to provide student loans, credit cards, personal and small business loans to Dreamers. A judge decided to exclude auto loans as well as mortgage loans from that earlier case, which is still pending. Wells Fargo has argued in that case that a lender may consider a borrower’s immigration status in deciding whether to extend credit.
Wells Fargo’s legal troubles
The new DACA lawsuit adds to the legal headaches for Wells Fargo. Over the past three years, Wells Fargo has admitted to opening millions of fake bank and credit card accounts, charging customers for unwarranted mortgage fees and apparent software glitches that caused hundreds of homeowners to lose their homes in foreclosure.
Car loans have been another black eye for Wells Fargo. The bank has said that it may have forced hundreds of thousands of auto borrowers to pay for car insurance they didn’t need. Approximately 51,000 of those customers required to make those larger payments ultimately had their vehicles repossessed, Wells Fargo has said. And Wells Fargo has admitted to illegally repossessing the vehicles of hundreds of service members.
Peña said he has successfully received an auto loan in the past that went through a dealership. He blamed the shift on the political atmosphere in the United States. President Donald Trump has threatened to terminate DACA, casting doubt on the program that has granted temporary status for about 800,000 people.
“I think businesses feel more entitled to reject. It’s easier in the current political environment. I guess it’s more acceptable,” said Peña, whose wife was born in the United States.
Peña said that after getting denied by Wells Fargo, credit unions and several other lenders also denied him credit. Asked why he’s only suing Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s biggest and most powerful banks, Peña said he is consulting with his lawyers on this question.
“There are 800,000 of us. I’m hoping this makes them feel more accepted and gives them the same opportunities as everyone else,” said Peña. “We’re not asking for an advantage, just the same opportunities.”
Claims of discrimination
The lawsuit is seeking actual and punitive damages from Wells Fargo. It argues that Wells Fargo “intentionally discriminated” against Peña by denying him an auto loan, conducting a hard credit check that hurt his credit score and failing to give him a written notice with an accurate reason for why his loan was rejected. (His credit score at the time of his application was 748, according to the complaint.)
Peña said that the written notice he received from Wells Fargo indicated that his United States residency status couldn’t be verified — despite the fact that he has DACA status.
The complaint argues that the alleged discrimination is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the post-Civil War law passed by Congress aimed at protecting the rights of freed slaves.
The lawsuit further claims that the apparent failure to provide an accurate written explanation is a violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, a federal law that prohibits lenders from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, marital status, age and national origin.
“There is no question, in my opinion, it’s a good cause of action. Wells Fargo will probably settle — or will have a judgment against them,” said Geoffrey Hoffman, an associate professor at the University of Houston Law Center who specializes in immigration-related litigation.
Hoffman, who also served as co-counsel before the US Supreme Court in an unrelated immigration case, said it would be illegal if Wells Fargo denied auto loans solely because borrowers are DACA recipients.
“You can’t be discriminated against on the basis of national origin just because you’re a DACA recipient,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman pointed to the Arizona Dream Act Coalition v. Brewer in the Ninth Circuit. The Court of Appeals ruled in that case that Arizona could not deny driver’s licenses to individuals protected under DACA. The Supreme Court refused to hear Arizona’s appeal.
“It shows that DACA recipients can be considered a discrete group deserving of protection,” Hoffman said.
However, Wells Fargo has argued in court filings the Equal Credit Opportunity Act permits lenders to “consider the immigration status of its credit applicants.” That argument was rejected by a judge in the broader lawsuit brought against Wells Fargo by DACA recipients.
What about other banks?
Michael Litrownik, one of the lead attorneys representing Peña, suggested legal action could eventually be brought against other banks that deny Dreamers access to credit.
Representatives from the nation’s other largest banks, JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C), did not respond to requests for comment about whether they lend to DACA recipients.
“We would like to break down barriers at every bank in the industry, if we can. We’re hoping this will lead to change in the industry,” Litrownik told CNN Business.