The loans aim to assist a population that often has no access to credit or banks spread out the financial impact of paying nearly $700 per person to apply for citizenship.
King County has 100,000 legal immigrants who are eligible to become full U.S. citizens. But many aren’t doing so because they can’t afford the hundreds of dollars it costs to apply.
Now, the city of Seattle and the Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union are teaming up for a new program, offering loans to help immigrants with green cards — many of whom are low-income — overcome the financial hurdle to becoming naturalized citizens.
Seattle’s immigrant population is soaring five times faster than the U.S.-born population. But many immigrants don’t have credit or access to banks, and aren’t able to come up with the $680 filing fee required by the U.S. government to apply for full citizenship, said Richard Romero, president and CEO of the credit union.
“While that doesn’t sound like a lot, it can be a lot for an immigrant,” said Romero, himself an immigrant who went through the naturalization process. “And you’re up to over $3,000 if it’s a husband and wife and three kids.”
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Some also have to pay for lawyers or other assistance with the lengthy application process.
Sarah Sumadi, program manager for Washington New Americans, a nonprofit that helps people become citizens, said some immigrants the agency helps don’t complete their application. Of those, 41 percent said it was because they couldn’t afford it.
“It’s a huge issue,” Sumadi said. “It’s really prohibitively expensive. In my experience, people will just put it off.”
The loans, announced this week, are for a year and carry a 9.99 percent interest rate — or a similar fee charged upfront, designed to serve Muslims whose faith prevents them from paying interest under sharia law.
That’s a better deal than the large fees typically charged by payday-lending shops that people without credit often resort to.
All seven Seattle Metropolitan branches in Greater Seattle will offer the loans.
There are similar loan programs in many cities across the country, and a few in Eastern Washington.
And at least one other local institution, Express Credit Union in South Seattle, has offered a similar loan since 2010, though that outfit is much smaller and the loans carry a 15 percent interest rate.
Express was “frustrated” at the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs for “overshadowing” the one-office credit union’s program by highlighting a competitor’s loan offer that is very similar, said Martin Vallen, Express’ director of programs and strategic development.
He said interest in the loan at Express’ loan branch has been relatively low: “There hasn’t been as much of an uptick as we had hoped, partly because we haven’t marketed this product.”
That’s where the new loan program hopes to set itself apart.
The city’s main role will be to communicate the loan offerings to people in need, using its extensive contacts with immigrants who already turn to City Hall for other services.
The immigrant and refugee affairs office will hold clinics later this year to help sign people up for the loans and make sure their citizenship applications are complete. (Officials plan to invite Express, as well as Seattle Metropolitan).
The city first approached Seattle Metropolitan a year ago in response to concerns raised by legal permanent residents who were unable to afford the citizenship application.
About two-thirds of the state’s 180,000 green-card holders live in King County, and about half of immigrants nationally are low-income, said Cuc Vu, director of the city immigration office.
“They don’t have to delay their dream of becoming a U.S. citizen. They can do it today,” Vu said. Without such assistance, she said, “many people have to save for years.”
Vu recalled paying $90 to apply for citizenship in 1994. The cost has since increased more than sevenfold, and it’s set to rise again — this time to $725 under a new proposal from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Becoming a citizen allows someone to vote, avoid deportation and typically earn a higher income, among other benefits, according to the city immigration office.
Anyone over 18 who has had a green card for five years can apply.
Romero said the issue is likely to become more significant as an increasing number of people from outside the country settle in Seattle.
King County’s total foreign-born population has surged 64 percent since 2000 and stands at more than 440,000.