ROANOKE, Va.-Freedom First FCU here has won the $100,000 Wells Fargo NEXT Seed Capital Award from Opportunity Finance Network and plans to use the grant to assist the many immigrants in its service area get the financing needed to apply for United States citizenship.

The $311-million CU said its "American Dreamer Loan" will help 30 people in its first year alone. The loan will be available only to legal, permanent residents. FFFCU said the cost of citizenship application can run from $2,500 up to $5,000.

Freedom First is the largest Community Development Financial Institution in Virginia. OFN is a national network of top-performing CDFIs.

According to Paul Phillips, president and CEO, the Roanoke metropolitan area includes 14,218 foreign-born individuals, of whom only 37.2% are naturalized U.S. citizens. The majority of immigrants and refugees are Somali Bantu, Vietnamese, Bosnian, Croatian, Cuban and Iraqi.

"In 2010 we received our low-income designation from NCUA, and simultaneously Treasury designated us a CDFI," Phillips recalled. "From that we developed certain goals, including improving the financial lives of people in our community, and strengthening the vitality of the community."

Freedom First has developed a number of asset-building and credit-building programs, as well as offering financial education, Phillips continued. But recently a particular area of need arose-the high cost of obtaining citizenship for immigrants and refugees.

"They have found it very expensive," he said.

The credit union is in the process of building out the pricing on the loan, but it expects it to fall in line with its standard rates on unsecured loans.

Magnet for Immigrants

Dave Prosser, VP of community development, told Credit Union Journal Roanoke is a hot pocket for resettled refugees for several reasons, including the fact the workforce includes a large number of minimum-wage employees.

"Cost of living is great here, and there is public housing, so we have a higher percentage of refugees than in any area in the Commonwealth of Virginia," Prosser said. "About 63% of these immigrants are not citizens, despite being eligible for many years. We look at citizenship as an asset to them because if they are not citizens they cannot engage fully in society."

Phillips said many immigrants are unbanked or underbanked, and have to turn to alternative financial services providers that cost a lot more.

"They have a lot of basic needs we can help them with. Roanoke is rural, so we help people get into cars so they do not have to rely on public transportation. We also help them get into affordable housing.

Other Parties Involved

"We take a holistic approach to help these people become U.S. citizens, which in turn will help them get access to mainstream financial services," Phillips continued. "It fits well in what we call our 'Impact Banking' services."

Freedom First is offering the American Dreamer Loan in partnership with Commonwealth Catholic Charities and local law firms.

"We are the lender, but we cannot do it alone," said Phillips. "The real power comes through the collaboration. This grant is a big help, but now it is up to us to take the concept to fruition."

Prosser said the project is scalable, and "hopefully easy" for other credit unions to duplicate. "They can have an impact in their communities. There are many credit unions that do these types of loans, but we are the first in our area."

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