Trial by Wire

There's lots of cash and carrying on over First Data's south-of-the-border business.

Terry Graham arrived at the immigration-reform forum late, when things were already heating up. She slid into the back row of seats in the North High School auditorium and listened as a man in the audience charged that the panel was skewed with open-border activists.

The man was invited up on stage, where he bashed what he saw as a one-sided discussion advocating illegal immigration. After he returned to his seat, Graham stood up and made the same complaint, projecting her voice so that the panelists could hear. Other audience members told her to shut up. Someone said that the event was for "Mexicans only."

Graham had brought a tape recorder to the forum, and when a young Hispanic woman sat down next to her, Graham warned that she was taping everything and that if she was threatened, she'd give the tape to the police. Several extra officers were on the scene for this forum, since the sponsor, the multibillion-dollar First Data Corp., had anticipated that protesters might be planted among the several hundred people in attendance.

 
 
First Data Corp. sponsored the immigration-reform 
forum where Julissa Molina was charged with 
disturbing the peace.
First Data Corp. sponsored the immigration-reform forum where Julissa Molina was charged with disturbing the peace.

Graham kept complaining, and people kept telling her to be quiet. The woman next to her, Julissa Molina, was the last one to tell Graham to shut up.

Graham says that Molina grabbed the tape recorder from her hand, then attacked her when she tried to get it back. Molina pulled her hair and ripped her T-shirt, Graham claims, then knocked her to the floor, where she may have passed out briefly. She got her tape recorder back, minus the tape.

Molina was cuffed and charged with assault and disturbing the peace.

"I was beaten up because I was speaking freely in my own country, by a woman who was a Mexican national and didn't like what I was saying," Graham says. "Are we not allowed to debate this issue without risking our life?"

Some witnesses say Graham was just speaking her mind. Others say she was inciting a riot.

Graham has filed suit against both Molina and First Data, which hosted the forum as part of its ongoing effort to bring attention to the immigration debate.

Anyone who uses a credit or debit card has likely done business with Colorado-based First Data, whose subsidiaries include the STAR ATM network and Western Union. The company's customers include many of the Latino immigrants who sent a total of $30 billion out of the United States and back to their homelands in 2003.

Graham believes that First Data has a vested interest in promoting illegal immigration because of the money it collects from its remittance business.


Juan had to cross four international borders to reach Colorado and the Western Union office at East Colfax Avenue and Emerson Street. Juan came to Denver because he heard that law-enforcement authorities here aren't as tough on illegal immigrants as they are in border states. He works odd jobs for whatever cash he can get, and he sends most of his money back home to Nicaragua.

The forms at Western Union are available in English or Spanish. Juan asks the clerk one of the few questions he can articulate in English: "How much?"

Juan has no official identification, but he doesn't need any to send money home. After filling out the form and handing over his cash, he walks to a nearby convenience store and purchases a calling card. Then he calls his family back in Nicaragua and gives them the code he just received from the Western Union clerk so they can claim the money.

By the time Juan hangs up the phone, his remittance has been sent. Out of the $100 that he handed over, Western Union keeps about $12 for its services -- a hefty commission.


Western Union was just ten years old in 1861 when it completed the first transcontinental telegraph line to provide fast, coast-to-coast communications during the Civil War. Five years later it introduced the first stock ticker. In 1871 it pioneered the world's first electronic money transfer, in 1914 the first consumer charge card, and in 1933 the first singing telegram.

In 1995, Western Union's then-owner merged with First Data Corp., the first company to process bank-issued MasterCard and Visa cards (in 1976), and the outfit that linked banks with the first ATM network five years later, in 1981. First Data already had a strong Denver presence, and in 1996 it moved Western Union's North American headquarters to Englewood.

First Data followed suit in May 2001, moving its corporate headquarters to Greenwood Village. The company's CEO and core team of senior managers are based here, and they tout the highly skilled workforce attracted by the area's quality of life. Today First Data is one of Arapahoe County's three largest employers, with approximately 2,400 people in Colorado and 30,000 around the globe.

And as the global economy grows, so grows First Data.

First Data generated more than $10 billion in 2004, and Western Union remains one of its largest subsidiaries. Western Union, which accounts for about 14 percent of the $151 billion wire-transfer market, has more than 200,000 agents worldwide, working out of 195 countries and territories. First Data maintains more than 424 million credit, debit and other accounts, and made more than $1 billion in profit from Western Union alone in 2004.

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