Microloan program to help legal immigrants cover naturalization costs

October 31, 2011

Ernestina Pacas completed her citizenship application last week, 17 years after she moved to the United States from El Salvador.

This week she is awaiting approval of a loan for $680, which she plans to use to pay the application fees charged by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Pacas, 42, is among the first to apply for a new microloan designed to help legal permanent residents cover their naturalization costs.

“If I become a citizen thanks to this loan, I will be a very happy person,” said Pacas, a hotel housekeeper in the District who qualified for naturalization nearly a decade ago. She said she did not apply earlier because she did not have the money to pay the fees.

Organizers expect hundreds of green card holders such as Pacas to qualify for the pilot program being launched Tuesday by CASA of Maryland — the state’s largest immigrant advocacy group — in partnership with Citi and other financial institutions and nonprofit groups. However, they said, the need is much greater.

The lack of money and English skills are the two main reasons permanent residents do not seek citizenship, said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA.

Nearly 300,000 people are eligible to apply for citizenship in the District, Virginia and Maryland, according to a CASA report.

If the year-long microloan pilot in Maryland is successful, it could be expanded in the region and replicated in other parts of the country, said Sheldon Caplis, south Atlantic regional director for Citi Community Development. Citi is the top investor in the program, contributing about $150,000 of the $400,000 cost.

“We want folks to attain citizenship. We want them to learn about the economic system. We want them to be better aware of their financial opportunities and to be able to take advantage of them,” Caplis said. “This is a win-win.”

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 12.4 million permanent residents live in the United States. The majority are eligible to become naturalized citizens, or soon will be.

Immigration statistics show that more people are choosing to naturalize. In the District, Maryland and Virginia, the number of naturalizations has more than doubled in the past decade, increasing from 13,770 in fiscal 2001 to 35,354 in fiscal 2010, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The pilot includes money for the microloans and citizenship and financial education. The loans become due a month after a person receives the money. Applicants have six months to repay at an interest rate of 8.5 to 9 percent, CASA officials said.

Permanent residents interested in applying for a microloan can visit CASA’s citizenship office to process their citizenship paperwork. To qualify, they need to complete an initial credit screening and financial counseling, be eligible for citizenship and pay a $25 application fee.

The program targets “low-i­ncome” immigrants, but organizers have not set any income restrictions, said Eliza Leighton, director of strategic initiatives at CASA.

The Latino Economic Development Corp. and the Ethiopian Community Development Council Enterprise Development Group are partnering with Citi and CASA to process the microloans, officials said.

Immigrant advocates point to several advantages to citizenship, including that naturalized citizens have access to federal jobs and are less likely to be poor than legal permanent residents who are eligible for citizenship.

Hispanic activists also see in naturalization an opportunity to increase the group’s electorate to shape immigration policy.

“For us to change the current immigration laws, it is vital that our people earn citizenship,” said Torres, of CASA. “By becoming citizens, we demonstrate that we are integrating into the American society, and we also send a message that we will vote for candidates that respect our community.”

Pacas is scheduled to start citizenship classes Thursday, where she will prepare for the naturalization test, which measures English language skills and basic knowledge of U.S. history and government.

As soon as she receives the loan, she said, she will send her paperwork to immigration authorities.

Pacas said the surge in anti-i­llegal-immigration laws in states across the country and the lack of federal immigration reform have motivated her to seek citizenship.

“I feel we need a voice,” she said. “If everything goes well, and I pass the exam and become a citizen, I will be the first in line to vote next year.”

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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