RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In a robbery, what a robber can put to most use is cash. Though with debit cards, credit cards and e-commerce, people are carrying less of it. But there's one segment of society that still deals largely in cash, and that's undocumented immigrants. Gang members know that, and they know their victims are unlikely to report a crime.
NPR's Laura Sullivan begins her report in a police car.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLICED DISPATCHER)
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's Friday evening in Langley Park, Maryland. Officer Juan Damian drives his police car past fast food restaurants, discount stores and Hispanic groceries. This is a gateway community, a portal, where thousands of immigrants start when they first come to the states - sometimes legally, often not.
OFFICER JUAN DAMIAN: Well, the majority of the people up here are Hispanics. There's more men than women and, you know, a lot of them are undocumented.
SULLIVAN: Damian suspects at least two-thirds of this community is undocumented. And that has made it a magnet for robberies over the years.
DAMIAN: He comes to an area like this here and get out of the car, see people walking down the street, ask them for their money and rob them for whatever they have, get in the car and leave, because they don't call the police.
SULLIVAN: Damian says gangs know undocumented day workers are lucrative targets. Their pockets are often stuffed with a day or even a week's worth of wages.
On this evening, the sidewalks are filled with men walking slowly, carrying coolers and lunch bags, wearing construction boots and dust-covered jeans. Some have orange vests in their hands and hats covered in paint.
Officer Damian says some of them will carry a thousand dollars or more pockets - a month or two of work - because they are afraid to leave it where they live. Many undocumented workers live in apartments with a dozen or so others.
The street term for these men is walking ATMs. Damian watches them out the car window.
DAMIAN: The people that you see it's funny, just, well, I say it appears a special area. It's very different. Different kind of crowd.
SULLIVAN: Damian is not concerned with their immigration status. He's concerned with stopping sometimes deadly assaults and robberies. He says he will never ask a victim whether or not he or she is here legally. But it's been hard to build that trust.
So he and community leaders have come up with other ideas. They've beefed up patrols, trained other officers to understand it is possible for a man wearing dirt-covered pants to carry hundreds of dollars in cash. And they've been turning to local banks.
GEORGE ESCOBAR: You know, we've been working to enroll people and to open bank accounts for different individuals.
DAMIAN: George Escobar is the director of health and human services for Casa De Maryland, a local advocacy group. Casa de Maryland has been holding seminars for immigrants. He invites all the local banks.
ESCOBAR: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Capitol One, BNC. I mean basically, you name it, any institution that's serving the community. Banks have been happy to partner with us because they have a big and then easy base for them to do a lot of bank account enrollment.
SULLIVAN: Because this community is a portal, new people are always coming, so Escobar says they constantly schedule new seminars. On some nights, banks will enroll hundreds of new customers.
ESCOBAR: The demand is overwhelming. All of our clinics, the bankers are completely busy and can barely deal with the demand of people that are coming to enroll with them.
SULLIVAN: It's actually not illegal for undocumented immigrants to open a bank account. Lots of foreigners bank with U.S. financial institutions. Immigrants need their passport or I.D. and a U.S. taxpayer identification number, which you can get regardless of your status.
The bank account efforts mixed with community policing seem to be working. Numbers are hard to come by for a crime victims are afraid to report. But known robberies, at least, have been cut in half in the past five years in this one area. And police say the number of arrests are up too, meaning immigrants have come forward to describe their attackers.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
SULLIVAN: Dora Escobar, who's not related to George, came to the United States several decades ago from El Salvador and now owns nine popular check cashing businesses. People mill about inside buying phone cards and talking. She says she worries about her customers at night and hopes they open bank accounts.
DORA ESCOBAR: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: Yeah, it's worrisome she says, but with an I.D., they can open their own accounts.
Escobar says she's appreciative of the recent police efforts to protect the people in the community, but most undocumented workers still do not trust the police.
ESCOBAR: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: It's working she says, but there's more work to be done.
Community leaders hope if they can get the cash out of people's pockets, it will keep the entire community safe, whether they are here legally or not.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.