DALLAS - A decade ago, Greyhound Lines Inc. accelerated its courtship of Hispanic consumers. Now its policy on illegal immigrants threatens that relationship.
In the last few weeks, the nation’s largest intercity bus carrier has come under fire from Latino groups over its policy to ferret out illegal immigrants — and their smugglers — who might be using its buses.
The Dallas-based company’s dilemma sheds light on a fast-rising issue for many U.S. companies. They want to do business with the booming illegal immigrant market — but must surmount technical, and sometimes legal, difficulties to do so.
And it comes as Congress debates the hot-button issue of illegal immigration, with no resolution in sight. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on Oct. 17 that the Senate will not take up comprehensive immigration legislation until January.
U.S. companies are under no obligation to check the immigration documents of consumers. But Greyhound, as a partial investor in another bus line, ran into legal trouble when the U.S. government said that smugglers used that carrier’s buses.
Greyhound drafted its policy after the U.S. government levied a $3 million fine last year against Golden State Transportation for conspiring with smugglers to illegally transport thousands of undocumented immigrants on routes that included Los Angeles, El Paso, Texas, and Tucson.
Greyhound’s SITA, a Latino-focused subsidiary, had a 51 percent stake in the now-bankrupt Golden State.
Customers can now find bold advisories at SITA’s Americanos terminal in the heavily Hispanic Oak Cliff area of Dallas.
‘‘Our company will aid in the arrest and prosecution of any persons attempting illegal entry into the United States, and/or the transporting of illegal drugs or contraband,’’ reads a yellow sign near the ticket booth.
Laminated posters in the lounge further outline the policy on illegal immigrants, especially ‘‘alien smugglers.’’ How can they be identified? Smugglers, the posters say, might use terms like ‘‘mi cargo,’’ my freight, or ‘‘mi pollito,’’ which is Spanish slang for a smuggled person.
Advocates from the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund characterize Greyhound and SITA’s response as an overreaction that could raise issues of racial profiling.
‘‘In the course of trying to protect themselves from excessive and aggressive government enforcement, they are potentially inviting a civil rights lawsuit,’’ said La Raza vice president Cecilia Munoz.
Al Penedo, SITA’s president and chief executive, bristles at charges that the bus line might engage in racial profiling. ‘‘I take it very personally when someone says we profile,’’ he said.
Greyhound spokesman Eric Wesley added, ‘‘We don’t train our people to look at a group of people by ethnicity or race.’’
The written policy, in fact, tells employees not to engage in the practice.
‘‘The policy is directed at avoiding the coyotes,’’ the Panama-born Penedo said.
Some smugglers are so blatant in their approach that, according to Penedo, ‘‘they pretty much had no quarrel in saying ‘These are my illegal aliens, and I need to check them from point A to B.’’’
As a result, Greyhound and SITA specify that if someone wants to buy eight tickets or more, they will receive greater scrutiny and must fill out certain forms, Penedo said.
Until the outcry from the Latino community, which has included protests in Los Angeles and Phoenix, the policy had been to scrutinize customers buying four tickets or more — which covered a lot of families traveling together.
Neither Greyhound nor SITA officials could say how many customers have been denied tickets under the policy.
U.S. immigration officials acknowledge that Greyhound is under no obligation to check the immigration status of ticket buyers, except in very rare cases.
‘‘Officers from Greyhound are not qualified for that job of determining whether the people who come on board their buses are illegal aliens,’’ said Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for the regional office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The Greyhound backlash comes as the commercial courtship of the immigrant market couldn’t be more ardent.
The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has swelled to 11 million, with the majority from Latin America. They’ve pushed the total Latino population to 41 million.
Latinos — legal and illegal — now have a collective buying power of $736 billion, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
Businesses from real estate companies to banks to electronic goods makers are finding ways to end-run the lack of Social Security cards, credit histories and even employer references among illegal immigrants.
Real estate companies, for example, are now using taxpayer identification numbers rather than social security numbers in mortgage and sale documents for homes.
Others are coaching immigrants, who may be paid in cash only, to open a bank account and make regular deposits to establish at least a six-month pay record.
Many banks and electronics firms that sell on credit now accept the Mexican government-issued matricula consular identification card in place of a U.S. driver’s license.
Some domestic airlines, such as Southwest Airlines Co., also accept the matricula.
But Greyhound became entangled in a decades-old portion of the law that prohibits the transportation of persons in the U.S. illegally by smugglers.
Greyhound’s policy specifically states that ‘‘the company is not to do business with illegal aliens or with alien smugglers.’’
The signs irritate some Hispanic customers.
‘‘I don’t understand why they do this,’’ Mexico-born Jaime Lozano, 72, said in Spanish as he boarded an Americanos bus to Chicago recently. ‘‘Folks pay for a ticket.’’
Then he tapped his blue U.S. passport tucked in his shirt pocket and smiled.
Greyhound buses carry 21 million passengers a year, and 20 percent of them are Hispanic. Greyhound officials did not provide data for SITA.