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Innovative Microloan Product to Ease Pathway to Citizenship for Legal Immigrants.

CASA de Maryland and Citi Lead Pilot Initiative to Make Naturalization Costs More Manageable While Building Credit and Seeding Savings Accounts

LANGLEY PARK, Md. -- Today, Citi Community Development and CASA de Maryland (CASA) launched an innovative microloan program for legal permanent residents seeking to become naturalized citizens. CASA will collaborate with two community development financial institutions (CDFI's) - the Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) and the Ethiopian Community Development Council Enterprise Development Group (EDG) - to launch and test the innovative citizenship microloan program that will lower the financial barriers to naturalization while simultaneously building an individual's credit and financial literacy. The loan program is the latest addition to a set of naturalization services available through Citizenship Maryland, a wrap-around comprehensive effort led by CASA and participated in by partner AmeriCorps volunteer host organizations that seek to support the hundreds of thousands of eligible legal permanent residents in Maryland in becoming citizens.

"Our state and our nation have a great deal to gain by embracing new Americans and supporting their efforts to contribute to our society and economy," said Maryland Lt. Governor Anthony G. Brown, whose parents immigrated to America to start new lives and achieve their dreams. "Decreasing the financial burden for immigrants who wish to become naturalized citizens will help them improve their families' lives and enrich their communities. It is exciting that this innovative program is being piloted right here in Maryland."

CASA's research has shown that one of the primary barriers to completing the naturalization process is the $680 naturalization fee and the inability for a low-income person to pay that cost over time,1 while also paying for supportive services such as English language or citizenship preparation classes. Reinforcing the research is the fact that when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) last raised fees for naturalization in July 2007, applications for naturalization decreased by 67% in the 12 months following the fee increase.

"I want to congratulate CASA de Maryland, Citi Community Development, and all of their partners for their work in launching this important project," said Congressman Chris Van Hollen (MD-8). "This program will provide access to credit to an underserved population, provide a pathway towards citizenship, and help many of our fellow Marylanders begin their new lives on more solid financial ground."

The new program will see CASA, together with LEDC and EDG as servicers, offering six-month microloans for $680 -- the cost of applying for citizenship. A typical applicant will pay a $25 application fee and, if approved, will a receive loan with an interest rate of 8.5-9%. The New Americans Citizenship Project of Maryland AmeriCorps, CASA, LEDC and EDG will monitor each borrower throughout their repayment period to both track and report timely payments to the credit bureaus. When the final on-time payment is made, the initial $25 application fee will be deposited into the borrower's bank account to encourage the individual to continue saving after the loan has been repaid. CASA and its partners will then follow up with borrowers regularly up to six months after repayment to determine whether they have been granted U.S. citizenship and continued to use their savings accounts. In addition, the organization will provide financial literacy training for borrowers, assistance establishing a bank account if necessary, and assistance preparing for the naturalization exam.

"This program exemplifies Citi's longtime commitment to expanding financial inclusion and ensuring that the communities we serve have the tools and access they need," said Sheldon Caplis, South Atlantic Regional Director for Citi Community Development. "We will be assisting many emerging Americans in developing not only a new national identity, but a new financial identity as well."

The microloans will be serviced by LEDC and EDG. In addition to CASA, citizenship applicants will receive citizenship-related counseling and services at the African Leadership Empowerment Council (Prince George's County), FIRN (Howard County), South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) (Montgomery County), the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity (Montgomery County), the Learning Institute for Enrichment & Discovery (L.I.F.E & Discovery of Frederick), Linking All So Others Succeed (LASOS of Harford County), and the Baltimore City Community College.

"Our country's aspiring citizens face numerous barriers to achieving their dream of citizenship and this microloan program helps ease one of those obstacles," said Gustavo Torres, Executive Director of CASA de Maryland. "Hundreds of thousands of immigrants in Maryland contribute every day to our state; becoming a citizen finalizes a long pathway of full integration."

Evidence shows that there is a significant economic advantage to becoming a fully naturalized citizen. A 2006 Urban Institute study found that, in the D.C. region, the household earnings of naturalized citizens were nearly double those of unauthorized immigrants and 15% higher than those of LPRs. Yet despite the economic incentive to naturalize, only 12% of Maryland's 120,000 eligible LPRs naturalized in 2009, and the number of LPRs naturalizing has increased by only about 1% annually over the past five years.

"Our microloan program has always been committed to creating a better future for immigrant families in Maryland and the greater Washington region," said LEDC Executive Director Manny Hidalgo. "We are proud to be part of this new initiative and we recognize the importance of establishing good credit as a key step on the path toward economic advancement and financial independence."

"Loans to cover the cost of applying for U.S. citizenship has been a major unfilled need," said Kevin Kelley, Managing Director of ECDC Enterprise Development Group. "The cost of the applications has gone up considerably in recent years and has become a real barrier for people wishing to become citizens. Not having citizenship has real economic implications, as it prevents people from obtaining some types of jobs, for which citizenship is required. This is a particular problem under the current economic circumstances, where finding jobs is already very difficult."

A pilot of the program is expected to move 125 legal immigrants to full citizenship. The launch will be supported by a media campaign funded by Citi Community Development and will include PSAs, social media, and more. In addition to Citi's lead gift, the loan program is also supported by a series of other donors, including the Raza Development Fund (RDF), the Annie E. Casey Foundation, National Council of La Raza, HSBC, and Bank of America. For further information about the project, go to www.citizenshipmaryland.org.

About CASA de Maryland

CASA started in 1985 in a church basement in response to the urgent needs of newly arrived Central American refugees. From that beginning, it has become a multi-cultural membership organization providing services and taking action with thousands of members across the state. Today, CASA occupies a rare space as a truly grassroots organization that directly addresses human needs and influences the regional and national debate on immigrants and public policy. CASA's mission is to create a more just society by building power and improving the quality of life in low-income immigrant communities. In 2010, CASA served more than 20,000 low-income individuals and secured 19,000 job placements; opened 1,702 bank accounts; filed 424 tax returns; graduated 723 ESOL students; and worked with 240 legal permanent residents to file their citizenship applications. For more information, visit www.casademaryland.org.

About Latino Economic Development Corporation

Working families deserve to live in affordable homes and own successful small businesses - but too many are unable to turn these dreams into a reality. The Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) equips Latinos and other DC-area residents with the skills and financial tools to create a better future for their families and communities. Participants in our programs learn how to buy and stay in their homes, take control of the decisions affecting their apartment buildings, and start or expand small businesses. To learn more, visit www.ledcmetro.org.

About Ethiopian Community Development Council Enterprise Development Group

ECDC Enterprise Development Group (EDG) is a non-profit organization, with offices in Arlington and Takoma Park, that serves low- and moderate-income residents of the Washington, DC-Baltimore metropolitan area, by providing access to loan capital for small businesses and a variety of other programs that help people build assets and achieve economic independence.

EDG is certified by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a Community Development Financial Institution. To learn more, visit www.entdevgroup.org.

About Citi Community Development

Citi Community Development (CCD) is leading Citi's commitment to achieve economic empowerment and growth for underserved individuals, families and communities by expanding access to financial products and services, and building sustainable business solutions and innovative partnerships. Our focus areas include: commercial and philanthropic funding; innovative financial products and services; and collaborations with institutions that expand access to financial products and services for low-income and underserved communities. For more information, visit www.citicommunitydevelopment.

1 Leighton, Eliza, Kim Propeack, et al. "A Regional Citizenship Promotion Plan: The New Americans Initiative." 2008. CASA de Maryland, Inc. and Tenants and Workers United.

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