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September 2016

Credit union offering special loans to help immigrants become citizens

For many of King County's 100,000 legal immigrants who are eligible to become full US citizens, the $680 applicant fee is a barrier, especially if it is multiplied to include other family members, or requires hiring a lawyer for assistance. That fact, and the personal experience of the top executive at a local credit union led to the creation of a special loan program to help immigrants complete the final step to full citizenship.

The one-year loan for up to $700 carries a 9.99 percent interest rate or a similar fee payable upfront, designed to serve Muslims whose faith prevents them from paying interest under sharia law. Two year loans for amounts up to $4,000 are also available at a higher rate. The financing is available to any permanent U.S. resident who need a loan to complete the naturalization process.

"I have total empathy for what these people are still going through when they can't afford to become a citizen," said Richard Romero, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union, whose not for profit financial cooperative is offering the loans in conjunction with the City of Seattle. The native of Peru came to the U.S. when he was four years old, but didn't become a naturalized citizen for another 20 years.

More than 22,000 people within Seattle's city limits are eligible for citizenship, but more than half are low income and can't afford the application fees, according to the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. The city's immigrant population is growing five times faster than the U.S. born population.

Statewide, the immigrant population has more than doubled in the past two decades. Only 46 percent of Washington's immigrants are naturalized as of 2013, the most recent data.

The partners in the new loan program note many immigrants and refugees turn to high-risk and costly options such as payday loans because they don't have access to traditional banks and credit unions.

"It's a huge issue," said Sarah Sumadik, program manager for Washington New Americans, a nonprofit that helps people become citizens.

The differences between a green card and citizenship are tangible and intangible. Naturalized citizens can participate in the U.S. political system and vote, and live permanently in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

Romero says growing up thinking he was an American was a big deal, "but I was always being reminded in different ways I was not. You are treated differently when people find out you have a green card," he commented in an announcement about his credit union's loan program.

Many cities across the country, including a few in Eastern Washington, offer similar loan programs.