Sep. 15—Becoming a U.S. citizen is pricier and more complicated than many people realize, with the naturalization application alone costing $725. The city of St. Paul has teamed with a capital city-based credit union to make shouldering that cost a little easier for permanent residents who want to make the leap.
Beginning Monday, Affinity Plus Credit Union will offer no-interest loans of up to $2,000 to St. Paul residents who need financial help applying for citizenship. The city is providing a $25,000 loan-loss reserve to leverage the credit union's stake in the "New American Loan" program.
"This is so new," said Joel Swanson, a vice president with Affinity. "Right now, it's just St. Paul. The only similar programs in the country, that we know of, are in Seattle and the Bay area. ... We're thrilled."
Carter: "I don't know any God — any major faith — that preaches wait until all your major problems are fixed and turn away strangers." He's open to refugees from Afghanistan and elsewhere, and when immigrants get naturalized they're able to contribute more. pic.twitter.com/08bzqP18Z1
— Frederick Melo, Reporter (@FrederickMelo) September 15, 2021
Assistant City Attorney Edmundo Lijo, who oversees the city's immigration initiatives, said most loans likely will be in the vicinity of $725 to cover the naturalization application. Coming up with that much cash upfront might otherwise be difficult, he said, especially for a family with multiple members applying. The loans, on the other hand, can be paid off over the course of a year.
"That's pretty reasonable," said Lijo, who pointed to national studies about the benefits of citizenship. "So much changes when they become a citizen. You can vote, you can sit on a jury, run for office. You're twice as likely to become a homeowner. They've shown people's income increases from $2,200 to $3,200 a year once they naturalize. It increases GDP (gross domestic product). It's a win-win for everybody."
Flanked by immigration advocates and public officials, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter introduced the New American Loan program on Wednesday during a media event outside City Hall. The initiative, which coincides with the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month, is part of a growing suite of immigration-related services offered by the city and Ramsey County.
The mayor said recent events in Afghanistan underscore the hardships that have drawn generations of refugees from countries of origin around the world to seek stability in St. Paul. "I don't know any God — any major faith — that preaches wait until all your major problems are fixed and (until then) turn away strangers," Carter said.
17 PARTNER AGENCIES
Some 17 partner agencies are involved in related work. The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, for instance, teamed with the city to win a competitive grant from the "Gateways for Growth" challenge, which funded a 10-month research study of how immigrants contribute to the local economy.
Among the findings of the "New Americans in St. Paul and East Metro" report released Wednesday, immigrants made up 20 percent of the city's population, 62 percent of the city's population growth and 40 percent of the population growth in the east metro from 2015 to 2019. In 2019, immigrants in St. Paul held $966 million in disposable income, or 14.7 percent of the city's total spending power.
Immigrants made up a third of the city's entrepreneurs and contributed heavily to federal social programs such as Social Security and Medicare. They also made up 35 percent of manufacturing workers, a key reason why manufacturers might choose to come to or remain in St. Paul.
While the city attorney's office does not represent immigrants facing possible deportation in court, it does work with the county to connect St. Paul residents to the Vera Institute, which contracts with a consortium of legal service providers. Those providers are the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, the Advocates for Human Rights and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.
Launched in 2019, the St. Paul Immigrant Legal Defense Fund has screened 242 potential clients, offering them legal consults and general guidance. The fund has provided 25 clients to date with free legal representation.
"Families are devastated during these circumstances and need help even to come forward," said Toni Carter, chair of the Ramsey County Board.
Veena Iyer, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center, said many immigrants face long-standing deportation orders hanging over their heads as a result of crimes they pleaded guilty to decades ago. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Padilla v. U.S. that immigrants must be advised how a plea deal might impact their immigration status.
The Supreme Court decision, however, did not automatically vacate existing convictions or deportation orders. "Unfortunately, it's not easy or automatic to reverse those," Iyer said. "You have to petition the court, and you have to have a very skilled team of legal representatives and community organizations to support the family."