Reforming the laws won’t be enough. Immigrants need financial help, too


Should immigrants have to go see these guys to get their citizenship? (History Channel, "Pawn Stars")

Nobody quite knows what immigration reform will looks like, much less when it will happen, but one thing's for sure: Under a new law, immigrants would be asked to pay at least several hundred dollars in fees for the privilege of becoming U.S. citizens, not to mention all the back taxes they might owe.

For many, it would be a heavy lift. Of the 11 million undocumented Americans, about a third of them are estimated to live under the poverty line, and might have to come up with the cash from a pawn shop or payday lender -- some of which wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of the desperation of non-native English speakers to charge even higher interest rates than they do already.

That's why José Quiñonez, executive director of the Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco, is plotting perhaps the biggest expansion of microfinance the U.S. has ever seen.

Quiñonez already has what he thinks is the solution: "lending circles," in which community members front the cash for people who need it to pay their citizenship fees. It comes in the form of a check written out to the Department of Homeland Security, so it can't be used for anything else. Out of 500 zero-interest loans made to date, he says, none have defaulted.

Any non-profit could have a similar program, he says. So Quiñonez, who chairs the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's community advisory board, is working to build a network of community institutions that can make it happen across the country.

"That's our vision for scale, and reaching hundreds of thousands of people," he says. For that reason, the slowness of immigration reform is actually helpful. "Everybody's in a waiting pattern until Congress moves. It's sort of like training for the big game."

Quiñonez thinks he can make it worth without too much is one way the government could help, though: Lowering how much it costs in the first place.

"I'm sure the federal government could not charge so much," he says. "Instead of charging $900, why not charge $90?"

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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