February 02, 2005

The Appleseed Foundation and its centers in Chicago, Nebraska, and Texas unveiled a new national outreach effort aimed at helping Latino immigrants navigate the American financial mainstream. As part of that effort, Appleseed released its new, one-of-a-kind series on nine brochures – in English and in Spanish – that help Latino consumers understand the importance of and the methods to join that system. During a telephone news conference today, Appleseed, its volunteers on the project, and affected community members all spoke about the need to connect the immigrant community with banking services that offer greater personal safety and asset building opportunities.

“Not being able to get a bank account is a lose-lose for everyone involved,” said Linda Singer, executive director of the national Appleseed Foundation. “If you’re not in the banking system in America, you’re not in the game.”

The Appleseed brochures specifically address the concerns and needs of recent Latino immigrants struggling to find a safe place to store their money, to send money affordably to relatives back home and to save money to buy a car or home.

“Without a relationship with a bank or credit union, it is almost impossible for you to buy a home, to send your children to school, or to break the cycle of poverty for your family,” said Singer. “If you’re not able to open a checking or savings account, you’re at risk of being robbed - either a victim of crime or of predatory financial practices.”

More than half of the estimated 17.5 million Latin American immigrants in the US do not have a bank account or access to mainstream financial institutions. The fact that many Latinos do not use mainstream financial services is a safety issue – with cash – carrying immigrants specifically targeted for violent crimes; it is a credit issue – with the unbanked not able to establish credit histories or credit scores; and it is a wealth-building issue – with the unbanked having to rely heavily on predatory pay day lenders and money transfer services.

“Cash was the only way that I knew to purchase anything,” said Oscar Rios Pohirieth, a Nebraska community member who immigrated from Mexico. “Unfortunately I was taken advantage of and I attribute that to the fact I didn’t have my money in a safe place. When we come to America, we don’t come with a lot of trust. We come from countries where the banking system can be corrupt. Here in the US, it is a matter of educating people – letting them know how to get into the system and that the system is safe.”

Appleseed contends that Latino immigrants’ lack of access to the mainstream financial system hurts not only individuals, but the community at large. Money that could be reinvested in families and local businesses is instead skimmed away by high fees and fringe financial services. It also prevents the banking community – and countless – industries – from tapping into a previously untouched pool of new customers. In 2003 alone, Latinos transferred more than $40 billion across the border. The vast majority of that was done through expensive wire transferors and personal networks – not through banks.

“The goal today is to raise awareness about these issues,” said Ann Baddour, a project leader with Texas Appleseed. “Ours has to be a multi-faceted approach; we have to reach out to the immigrant community and let them know how they, as consumers, can benefit from accessing what the mainstream banking system in America has to offer. It’s about building relationships and building trust. We also have to convince the banking industry that increasing access is a positive thing for them that will result in many loyal new customers. It’s a message that is being received, and we see the market changing in positive ways.”

“The brochures that we released today try to – for the first time – address a great number of issues from the Hispanic consumer point of view,” said Jose Marrero, designer of the brochures and an Appleseed consultant. “No other brochures in the country address these specific issues – nor do they address them in such a manner as to speak directly to the Hispanic immigrant consumer. These are unique – they are educational but they do not preach. They are informative, but they are not overwhelming. We want to be sure that every interested party – whether it is a consumer, a community organization, or a banking representative – knows these brochures are available to distribute to their friends or customers.”

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