Seeking To Ease The Migrant's Burden

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Angel Ramirez is just three months into his job as CEO at Community Trust CU, which primarily serves Hispanic immigrants. Yet he is uniquely suited to the position, being an Hispanic immigrant himself who started out at the CU as a teller some 11 years ago.

"They come with us because we have the language. They don't have any credit established at all, so we help them to start establishing credit," Ramirez said, describing the "typical" CTCU member. The credit union was founded to serve migrant workers in Central Florida. "Because they are not used to using banks or credit unions, they have little or no trust in the system."

And it's a system that doesn't always entirely trust them, either. "One of the biggest problems they face is a lack of identification. Most of them cannot easily get a valid ID," he explained. "We have to rely on IDs from Mexico, the Mexican consulate, or non-profit organizations that offer photo IDs. What other financial institutions don't understand is that just because these people don't have credit doesn't mean they won't pay you back.

"(Other CUs) don't want to mess with our members and feel like migrant workers and the professional office workers that they tend to serve will mix, but Hispanics are growing in the U.S., and they deserve a chance."

Community Trust CU has been willing to offer that chance, and in return has earned some very loyal members in the long run at a time when member loyalty is at a premium.

Long Memories

"If you help these people out, in the long run, they can be some of your best members, because they remember who was there for them when nobody else was," Ramirez related.

One challenge to credit unions serving immigrants is that while it may take time to trust them as a group, they must take a chance on trusting that individual members will repay their loans.

"You have to learn the culture, not just the language," he advised. "We don't trust easily, especially banks."

Ramirez said strategies for giving immigrants an opportunity to learn enough about the credit union to trust it include hosting meetings for groups that work with such newcomers. "Show an interest in them," he counseled. "Start attending these meetings, meet with the community leaders. Start with the leaders, and they will start sending people to you."

One thing that won't engender trust in new immigrants: offering something for nothing. "They are not looking for free things, for giveaways," Ramirez observed. "Sometimes that just doesn't work."

This is especially true with a population of people who not only know the old adage "there's no such thing as a free lunch," but have also come to expect to be taken advantage of because of their lack of fluency with the language and culture in their adopted home.

"They don't know anything about credit unions, that their money is safe and insured up to $100,000. They don't understand federal insurance or the benefits of membership, so they'd rather keep their money at home," he related. "They are afraid they'll be taken advantage of. What you have to do is help them establish credit with something like a $250 loan and just start from there."

While lending that first helping hand can lead to developing a life-long loyalty in that first generation, sometimes holding onto the second generation-much less the third-proves to be an entirely different and equally difficult task.

"We're dealing with that right now. We see the new generation asking for different kinds of services that we simply don't offer," Ramirez noted. "It's really like serving two different fields of membership. What we are seeing is that if we don't have the service they are looking for, they will go elsewhere. They want everything in one place."

And that's something the $4.5-million credit union is not yet equipped to offer. "For the most part, we do loans and credit cards and check cashing, and that's about it. We're working on some of the other services the new generation wants," he said. "We need to reach this membership that is lost because they're the ones who are going to have better jobs, better homes."

Generation Gap

The fact that the credit union helped their parents or grandparents get a foothold in this country and that it has a bilingual staff doesn't always mean much to them. "Some in the new generation don't even speak Spanish anymore," Ramirez added.

In addition to having such a split between the generations, Community Trust Credit Union also has to deal with a gap between the different Hispanic cultures. "We are from many nations, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Peru, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico," he commented. "There are some real differences there because people from countries other than Mexico usually come here with more of an understanding of the services; they usually can get ID easier. Their needs are similar, but they are not exactly the same."

Despite some of the challenges, serving New Americans is well worth doing, Ramirez stated. "They are good members, loyal to the credit unions. They stay with us, even if we don't have the best rates," he said. "If you can convince them that it's their credit union and their money, then they will do things for you. For example, a big issue is delinquency. Well, if you can show a member that it's their money, their credit union, they will help you find anybody that you can't find. It's tightly knit community, and once they feel that sense of ownership, they will help you."

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