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Tailoring Financial Services to Transient Identities

A street vendor selling corn on the cob and fried meat, Juana nibbled on a piece of beef as the subway rumbling overhead interrupted our introduction. At the age of 50, a 10 year resident of Jackson Heights, Queens, Juana sends as much as she can, usually between $100 and $200 each month to her mother in Ecuador. When asked why she sends money to her mother she laughs and says in Spanish, “Because she’s my mother! I have to sustain my mother,” and hands a dollar to her three-and-a-half year-old granddaughter who goes to the neighboring stand to buy a cup of ice cream. 

For many Americans, their family, community, and general identity reside neatly within their nation. For migrants whose families reside elsewhere, sending domestically earned money abroad (known as remittances) adds a unique dynamic for what is considered ‘home.’ As credit unions and advocacy groups start addressing financial empowerment of migrants, a question emerges of how migrants perceive their identity – ties to their family, community, home country, and the United States.

Remittances have become a significant force in the global economy. A study by the Inter-American Development Bank concludes that Latin American migrants in the US sent about $45 billion back to their families in 2006. The figure accounts for one of the largest national income sources for many developing countries, often dwarfing international aid and direct foreign investments. With the increase of remitters, new strategies for political mobilization have emerged.

On May 10, the day before Mother's Day, migrants living all over the US protested at the Western Union shareholder meeting in New York. They emphasized that Western Union is exploiting the love of remitters with unfair charges and exchange rates without reinvesting in the communities they profit from. The Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action (TIGRA), founded in 2006, organizes around remitters. 

Viviana Rennella, Director of Transnational Programs, says "we see the world rearranging itself around the power of remittances. We want to empower people to assert their economic power." Instead of assuming that migrants intend to stay in the US, TIGRA addresses remitters as remitters and attempts to build a transnational community based on their common practice of sending money to their families. 

However, many migrants view their communities in terms of family, therefore their investment in a transnational community or a temporary US neighborhood may not be present. The question becomes how migrants can be included in local communities and empowered through access to financial services. 

Investment in Neighborhood

On the corner of Avenue B and 5th street in New York's Lower East Side sits an unusual banking experiment. In the lobby the Community Bulletin Board advertises jobs, housing, language classes, and lost pets. At 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union is bustling with activity. Bank manager Victoria Rodriguez greets an elderly couple with hugs and kisses one minute and helps a customer at the ATM the next. A banner above the teller windows reads in English and Spanish “Serving the financial needs of our community since 1986.” 

That year, the last bank in a 100-block radius prepared to shut down because the low-income neighborhood branch was not profitable. Community activists made a legal claim on the bank's responsibility to engage financially in the neighborhood under the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, resulting in the establishment of The Lower East Side credit union. “We provide an affordable alternative for financial services, and there’s an organic link between the needs of the community and what we offer,” Director of Program Development Jennifer Thompson explains from her 9 square foot office. Ms. Thompson explains the double bottom-line: one is financial, the other social. For this 501(c)1 that she describes as a hybrid nonprofit-for profit, “Community development is the business.”

A couple of blocks away we meet Maria Cortez, 29, who owns the Mexican restaurant El Maguey y La Tuna. Born and raised in the Lower East Side, she recounts, “My family’s restaurant in Brooklyn burned to the ground five years ago. We went to the Citibank to apply for a loan to start up a new one, but they refused to help. In the big banks you are just a number.” Three years ago Maria went to the credit union where here mother had an account to apply for a loan: “I started from the bottom. I had to make a business plan, but they gave me pointers and were very supportive. For loans they tell you to take out only what you can pay back. They give you a chance.” 

Ms. Thompson highlights the importance of establishing financial literacy in the community, especially among immigrants; “Services are important, but not enough. Many immigrants tend to live hand to mouth, but getting their first loan is the first and most important step in asset-building. A lot of people had never used a bank before they came to us.” 

Know Your Rights: Discrimination in Banking

Deyanira Del Rio, Associate Director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project in New York (NEDAP), stresses that "legally, immigration status has nothing to do with opening a bank account, taking out a loan, starting a business, or buying a house". The Patriot Act clarifies the full legality of opening a bank account without a social security number.  

In practice, however, discrimination still occurs. Cesar Zambran, a 31 year old cook living on Long Island has been in the US for six years, but only has a bank account in Mexico: "I wanted to open an account here but they told me I needed a social security number. Mexicans face a lot of discrimination." Ms. Del Rio agrees and cites reports stating that bank employees and even government officials are uncertain as to the law, and thus end up reinforcing myths in the immigrant community about how legal status affects financial rights: “Many are unsure whether they can open a bank account or they don’t realize they can still access the account if they leave the country.” 

Community banking discredits such myths and creates an environment where discrimination is less likely. The credit union accentuates the strong link between building community and building assets for individuals. 

As 67% of the credit union's members are Hispanic Latinos, primarily from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, the credit union hires bilingual staff members from the community. The strength of the community has proven to be the most important source for the growth of the credit union: “When they go to Citibank they are not welcomed, not understood and not provided with the loans they need. We know people. If we provide a good service, people tell their family and friends.” Especially in immigrant communities, she says, trust and familiarity are extremely important. 

Credit union members seem to unanimously agree that it plays a key role in the Lower East Side community. Milagros Santana, a 53-year old Puerto Rican woman, says that the credit union is important as it “helps out a lot of people”. More blunt with his answer, Julio Hernandez, a member for a decade, says he likes the credit union because: “They give me loans to visit my family in the Dominican Republic, other banks won’t do that.”

Remittances in the Credit Union 

Mr. Hernandez sends around $900 to his mother and siblings in the Dominican Republic each month, but is not aware of the credit union’s remittance service. Instead, he uses a remittance bureau a few blocks away. Other members of the credit union echo this sentiment, not knowing that the credit union offered this service, they rely instead on money orders or Western Union. Kathy Morales, a Loan Servicing Officer who has used the service herself says, “a lot of people used to use the service, and we got a lot of comments from customers saying it was cheaper than other places, especially banks, where fees were ridiculous.”  

The fact that some remitting members are not aware of this service at the credit union may indicate that the organic link between the bank and the immigrant community may not be so strong when it comes to remittances. There seems to be a collision between the interests of immigrants to provide for their families outside the US and the credit union’s vision of building community in the US. This challenge becomes even more evident in a neighborhood in Queens where there is less of a sense of community.

Building a Community 

Immigrants like Marccial Reyes, 35, challenge the notion of building a community. He sends money home to his family in Mexico to save up for his retirement. What he experiences in Jackson Heights, Queens, where he works in a record shop, is not community but a competitive culture: “This is not a place to spend the rest of you life. If you don't have money, nobody will help you.” 

Along two bustling avenues in Jackson Heights, whose population is one third Asian and one third Hispanics, over 60 locations offer international wire transfer services. Most locations offer a wide array of services including international phone booths, internet, and travel agencies in addition to wire transfers. Although remitting is a very common experience among immigrants and all of the stores offer services primarily in Spanish to cater to the largely Hispanic clientele, there does not seem to be any sense of community derived from this common practice of sending money home on a regular basis. 

For the past three years Zoe Sullivan, Community Development Director at the Queens Community House in Jackson Heights, has been working on establishing a credit union to serve Jackson Heights and neighboring areas. The project started out as an attempt to establish a cooperative that would provide affordable wire transfer services, but financial feasibility meant that other services would have to be provided to support the costly service. A credit union in the area would provide financial services to residents at better rates and allow them to take part in a larger financial network, Ms. Sullivan says. A major concern propelling this project forward is that “people pay exorbitant amounts of money for sub-prime services and they are being taken advantage of,” citing pawn shops, pay day loans, and check cashing places as quick fixes for financial instability that end up being extremely costly. 

Unique to the project in Queens is the ambition to organize the credit union around remittances and thereby embrace the immigrants that are provided the fewest financial services. While the Lower East Side credit union was established to provide financial services, the Queens credit union is entering a competitive market of banks and remittance agencies. Their challenge is to both organize around remittances and foster financial stability for their membership.

The Emergence of a Transient Migrant Identity

In a sense, restaurant owner Maria Cortez represents the American Dream. Building off the work of her parents, she strives to make her restaurant successful, while pulling on the strength of her neighborhood’s community. “I consider myself a New Yorker-Mexican. Being from the Lower East Side means that you are proud of your Latino culture and don't give up”. As a first-generation American, she embraces the community vision espoused by the credit union in her identity. 

Still, she is aware of the situation of new immigrants in New York. She points towards the kitchen where she employs three employees: “They all work really hard and all of them send money back, but through remittance agencies, not the credit union.” The question is therefore who will be able to address the needs of Ms. Cortez’s employees even if they do not feel attached to any community in the US. 

Like Ms. Cortez’s employees, Marccial Reyes is here to work. Although he has lived in the US for fourteen years and intends to apply for a green card, his family lives in Mexico. “What is American? If I weren’t Mexican, I wouldn’t consider myself anything.” He does not derive a sense of community from Jackson Heights, rather his ties to his family in Mexico dictate his future plans. Mr. Reyes mirrors many transient migrants who came to the US to work and have not been won over. “Regardless of your legal status, you will never be treated as an American. You will always be a Hispanic in their eyes.”

The credit union in the Lower East Side is able to draw on a more homogenous community, but this approach may be outdated with new types of migrants who imagine their futures in less permanent ways. TIGRA and the Queens credit union challenge the assumption that immigrants come to the US with the intention to stay. Instead, they embrace a transient identity centered on the cohesion of the family whether that is inside or outside the US. 

Immigrant neighborhoods like Jackson Heights face a unique challenge of accommodating and including the new immigrants that see themselves as transient without taking a strong sense of identity from their US neighborhood.  

The challenge now is to address the financial needs of migrants in a holistic way that takes into account their transient identities. 




Marta Lopez, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007

Emmanuel Torres, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007

Artemio Flores, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007

Gustavo Saucedo, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007

Juana, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007 

Mohammad Zaman, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007

William Cohen, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007

Noel Ezcona, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007

Diego Arcos, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007

Julia colon, Jackson Heights, July 31, 2007

Jennifer Thompson, Director of Program Development, Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union, of Transnational Programs, Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action August 2, 2007

Maria Cortez, Owner of El Maguey y La Tuna Mexican Restaurant, Lower East Side, August 2, 2007

Zoe Sullivan, Community Development Director, Queens Community House, Jackson Heights, August 2, 2007 

Viviana Renella, Director, California, August 2, 2007

Sarah Oltman, Robin Hood, August 3, 2007

Milagros Santana, Lower East Side Federal Credit Union member, August 3, 2007 

Kathy Morales, Lower East Side Federal Credit Union Loan Servicing Officer, August 3, 2007 

Julio Hernandez, Lower East Side Federal Credit Union member, August 3, 2007

Luis Maldonado, Lower East Side Federal Credit Union member, August 3, 2007 

Deyanira Del Rio, Associate Director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, August 6, 2007 

Cesar Zambran, Jackson Heights, August 7, 2007 

Jorge Garcia, Jackson Heights, August 7, 2007 

Nelly Gomez, Jackson Heights, August 7, 2007

Marccial Reyes, Jackson Heights, August 7, 2007


“Migrant remittances from the United States to Latin America to reach $45 billion in 2006, says IDB. Press Release, Inter-American Development Bank, October 18, 2006 http://www.iadb.org/NEWS/articledetail.cfm?language=English&ARTID=3348

Thompson, Gabriel: “Immigrants Push Western Union to Share the Wealth”, May 11th, The Nation



Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action, http://www.transnationalaction.org/about.html

Census 2000, District 25 http://www.gothamgazette.com/searchlight2001/dist25.html

Research Paper

Angkana Asawasakulkrai, Julia Busch, Aurelie Couette, Priya Gopalen, Claire

Husson, Jian Kang, Rosa Lin, Naoko Matsuda, Renaud Rodier, Ivana Taborosi: “The Colombian Remittance Industry in Jackson Heights, Queens”, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University


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