Without access to banking services, even small necessities, like paying rent, incur high costs. For the "unbanked," payments are often made with an expensive cashier's check and paychecks cashed through predatory services that charge high fees. It is difficult and dangerous to save money when it must be kept at home, increasing the incentive to consume and placing the purchase of houses, cars, and even most large appliances out of reach. For 75 percent of Mexican immigrants living in the United States--and nearly one third of immigrants from all Latin American countries--these difficulties are part of daily life.
As in other immigrant communities around the country, the large Hispanic community of Chicago, composed of recent documented and undocumented immigrants, faced such financial problems. Most were without banking services, paying high premiums to predatory financial businesses such as check-cashing services. Then, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) stepped in.
The FDIC branch in Chicago initially intended to fulfill one part of the 2001 "Partnership for Prosperity" agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. The agreement urged the U.S. to seek alternatives to the high-cost wire transfers to Mexico that many immigrants used to send money to families back home. Joining with the Mexican Consulate of Chicago, the FDIC created the New Alliance Task Force (NATF).
It was clear to members of the NATF that wire transfers were only the symptom of a larger problem: lack of access to financial services. Drawing on a coalition of 65 people from banks, mortgage industry representatives, community organizations, federal bank oversight agencies, and other government agencies, the NATF sought a comprehensive solution.
Four major working groups targeted specific problems; they addressed access to financial education, bank products and services, mortgage products, and social products. Each group developed specific strategies as well as programs to implement them.
In some cases, these solutions required dramatic change. Many immigrants lacked identification, which is usually required to open up even basic checking accounts. The NATF helped to sell the Matricula Consular card, issued by the Mexican consulate, as a valid form of banking identification. Partner banks began to accept income tax records to substantiate loan applications.
Other solutions employed common sense. Many in the immigrant population were suspicious of both banks and government presence in their lives. The NATF worked to overcome this by positioning bank representatives in the Mexican Consulate. As new immigrants waited in line for their identification cards, they heard about the benefits of banking.
The NATF's comprehensive programs helped nearly 160,000 immigrants to open bank accounts. Many thousands more received financial counseling, mortgage assistance, and other forms of support.
The success in Chicago has already prompted the FDIC to bring the NATF's innovations to other districts. Programs are underway in Charlotte/Raleigh, Boston, Austin, Kansas City and Los Angeles. More FDIC districts are scheduled to adopt similar initiatives.