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Safe, trusted “Financial Empowerment Windows” for the Mexican Community are a light in these hard times

Mexican immigrants in the U.S. are more likely to be unbanked or underbanked when compared to other immigrant groups. At the same time, research shows that immigrants have high levels of savings discipline, and a higher percentage of Mexican immigrants—regardless of whether or not they had bank accounts—accumulate savings when compared to other immigrant communities. With 36.6 million Hispanics of Mexican origin living in the U.S., including approximately 12 million who were born in Mexico, having targeted, tailored financial products helps the community move forward financially.

Creating products, services, and approaches that are culturally relevant and appropriate – and meeting people where they are and building on their strengths – maximizes their potential for financial success.

In order to expand financial access for Mexican immigrants, Citi, a long-time partner of MAF, seeded a unique initiative that provides in-language services in trusted locations, called Ventanillas de Asesoría Financiera (VAF), or “Financial Empowerment Windows,” at Mexican Consulates across the U.S. The partnership, which includes the Mexican government’s Institute for Mexicans Abroad (IME) and a nationwide network of nonprofit organizations, provides free, high-quality, culturally competent financial education to the Mexican community in the U.S.

The initiative was crucial because the products that the marketplace developed were never designed for, or even conceived of, with Mission Asset Fund’s (MAF) clients in mind. Immigrants—particularly low-income immigrants—become secondary users.

MAF administers the VAF initiative nationally as part its mission to create a fair financial marketplace for hardworking families and to create scalable solutions, like the MyMAF App.

Providing one-on-one coaching to clients in safe, trusted spaces allowed MAF to learn more deeply about the financial lives the Mexican community living in the U.S., including the real fears Mexicans living in the U.S. have regarding what would happen to their financial assets if they were faced with deportation proceedings or other financial crises.

“The physical space in the Consulates is perceived by the community as a very safe place, and a place where you can receive information that is fair, and also the information you need. It’s tailored for you,” said Mexican Ambassador Ivan Roberto Sierra-Medel.

In fact, by meeting clients in those trusted environments MAF was able to elicit more honest responses and questions from the community. The feedback led MAF to develop a whole new curriculum related to financial emergencies to help community members better prepare for moments of crisis, whether they’re deportation proceedings, earthquakes, or pandemics.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of immigrants pay federal, state, and local income taxes, they aren’t able to access unemployment insurance, health benefits, food stamps, and other safety-net programs that U.S. citizens count on in times of need.

MAF’s curriculum includes a “Financial Emergency Action Plan for Immigrants” with simple, tangible strategies to prepare for immigration-related emergencies including tips for protecting money, homes, and other assets, and advice about how to prepare in times of financial stress.

“We didn’t stop working.”

Emergency preparedness is more than a catchword in California, where the threat of wildfires, earthquakes, and other disasters looms large.

According to a March 2020 report by the Migration Policy Institute, there are six million immigrants working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, risking their health to continue providing services during the pandemic, including providing medical and home-health services, cleaning hospital rooms, harvesting and producing food, and staffing grocery stores and other essential businesses. At the same time, the immigrant community, and Hispanic women in particular, have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 job losses.

Fortunately, the tools and systems MAF developed to help people prepare for moments of crisis laid the foundation needed to respond immediately to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the shelter-in-place orders came through, MAF began hearing from clients who were losing their sources of income. In response, MAF moved quickly to stand up a national Rapid Response Fund to get much-needed cash to the low wage workers, students, and immigrant families left out of federal relief.

Launched in March, the Rapid Response Fund provides $500 cash grants to low-wage workers, students, and immigrant families left out of the CARES Act relief, including tax-paying ITIN holders and their U.S. citizen partners and children. In mobilizing a national network, MAF raised over $33 million to provide cash grants and recovery loans to 46,000 grants people nationwide.

Jesús, a client of Central City Neighborhood Partners, the nonprofit partner that provides services at the VAF in the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, heard about the Rapid Response Fund and applied for a grant. Prior to the pandemic, he worked full time in the restaurant industry, sometimes holding two or even three jobs so he could support his family and reduce his debt.  

“The pandemic has affected us, Latinos and immigrants, more,” said Jesús. “Latinos are exposed more, precisely because we didn’t stop working. That is why sometimes you ask for help.”

“In this case, I saw the (Rapid Response) grant, and I applied. It helped me a lot because the table had more food on it, at least for a few days, and I was able to buy a few extras and pay for some things. And really, this was a big help.”

Jesús’s experience underscores the importance of having relevant, culturally appropriate services for the immigrant community.

 “Thanks to organizations like this who work with love, dedication, and professionalism. Thank you for telling people, ‘There are resources here. There is the possibility of help here.’”

“I can proudly say we are serving our community.”

While many organizations were forced to shutter operations due to shelter-in-place, the VAF quickly pivoted, creating a new approach to continue its vital work, including offering online financial coaching services and informational webinars about how to navigate the new reality.  

“Covid has been a challenging period,” said Sierra-Medel. “We have the strategy in place that all consulates keep delivering services, some of them in person and some of them remotely, because the community right now faces the most serious challenges.”

“COVID was almost the worst-case scenario for the Mexican community in the U.S.,” said Consul Julio César Huerta-García, Department of Community Affairs, Mexican Consulate San Francisco. “We worked with MAF to use technology, launch informational videos and webinars, and to be very proactive about providing information and resources to help during the crisis.”

“The Ventanilla is a light in these very hard times, and I proudly can say that we are serving our community,” said Huerta-Garcia.

Unlikely partnerships are key to success

The unlikely partnership behind the VAF initiative—the Mexican government, a global financial institution, and a network of community-based nonprofit organizations—illustrates of the kinds of deep, cross-sector approaches that are required to tackle the complex, systemic challenges facing low-income communities.

This article was written in collaboration between José A. Quiñonez, MAF Founder and CEO, and Marco Chavarin, Vice President of Citi Community Investing and Development, Northern California.