SMCU Reviews Recent Citizenship Loan Program

Anthem talked to SMCU President & CEO Richard Romero on the heels of their recent partnership with the City of Seattle on providing loans to help finance the first step on the path to U.S. citizenship.

For SMCU, it’s equal parts practicality and altruism.

According to Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, 22,000 people in the City of Seattle are eligible to become full U.S. citizens. But how many can afford to start that process? And where should their first stop be to help finance their journey?

Recently, SMCU and the City of Seattle came together to answer both questions, locally, through a new citizenship loan program.

How it works

SMCU’s low-interest citizenship loans, Citizenship Express and Citizenship Plus, cover the costs associated with the citizenship application process, ranging from $700 to $4,000. The two tiers give the flexibility to offer each applicant the best possible financing for their unique situation.

Both loans seek to reach more than half of the 22,000 legal permanent residents in Seattle who are eligible to naturalize, but are unable to afford the current $680 application fee.

But the end goal, according to SMCU President and CEO Richard Romero, is about developing a relationship with a community while providing immediate, practical solutions to affording citizenship naturalization—a process he’s gone through, himself.

“People looking to become citizens come from all walks of life,” Romero said, using a Microsoft engineer as an example.

“For that engineer, $680 is pocket change, but you have a large number of immigrants in the city or Washington state who are blue collar or are working well below the poverty level. Our program is really focused on them.”

Romero described a scenario where those blue collar workers would otherwise head for a payday lender to borrow this money and pay upwards of 50 percent with fees.

“That’s where the credit union can step in and show social responsibility and really make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

Where did it start?

According to Romero, who is also on the Board of the Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, the idea was first socialized among a handful of cities through the Federation, but SMCU eventually worked directly with the City of Seattle.

“We started as the city’s credit union in 1933, and we already had a rapport going with them. So we worked for around six months creating a loan program that would address the needs of the people the city serves through their immigration program,” he said, calling it a true partnership between SMCU, the City of Seattle and the Federation.

Once those needs involved examining that $680 application fee which, when factored in for a family, the costs could leap into the thousands.

Sarah Sumadi, program manager for Washington New Americans, a nonprofit that helps people become citizens, recently told the Seattle Times that the cost is a “huge issue,” noting that people will just put the process off due to the “prohibitive expense.”

What’s next?

Romero noted that SMCU has launched a pilot outreach program with the City of Seattle to hold workshops to introduce the loan program to some groups of approximately 250 each. Credit union staff will be on hand at these workshops to help with everything from event logistics to take applications.

As the program continues to unfold, positive media coverage has brought additional spotlight to SMCU, along with questions on what other products this could lead to.

Romero clarified that this specific pair of loans is “laser-focused” on one program: the application, rather than immigration attorneys or resolving other citizenship issues.

Though, he added, if there’s demand in the future for those programs, SMCU would take a look.

“It’s a convening of resources to help the underserved,” he said.

Questions about this story? Contact Eric Horvath: 503.350.2222, [email protected]