In a Nutshell: Families new to the US are often not on the same playing field as those who were born or grew up in the country. When it comes to financial services, immigrants may experience challenges in building wealth without access to credit and other resources. The Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) works with immigrants to help them obtain a Social Security number and access to services — including housing and career resources — that can set them up for financial success. And following the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever for MEDA to help provide access to those critical resources.
Immigration to the US is a daunting task for anyone, and there are complicated legal hoops at nearly every step of the journey.
Those coming from most countries outside of the US need a visa to immigrate legally. That application process can take months or even years.
Refugees and asylum seekers can legally immigrate to the US only after receiving approval and meeting certain conditions. This process also entails long legal processes for families who may not have much time.
For many, the long and arduous process is worth it to have a fresh start and a chance to live the American dream. My mother is one of those who immigrated to the US to create a better life for herself.
The financial skills she learned on her own from textbooks and from friends she met helped instill a strong financial foundation for her children. And those are skills I plan to pass on to my children. To this day, I hear her in my head scolding me to stop buying things I don’t need, and that voice usually stops me in my tracks.
Unfortunately, many immigrants who come here do not have the same access to knowledge my mother had. Some fall into debt traps that destroy their credit score before they even get a chance to start building it.
MEDA is an agency that helps newcomers to the US learn financial literacy through free classes and provides access to resources that help them find jobs and housing.
The agency got its start nearly 50 years ago by strengthening Latino small businesses. Today, MEDA, or the Mission Economic Development Agency, provides financial coaching to help immigrants avoid financial mistakes, learn how to build credit, and assist them in finding careers and places to live.
MEDA reinforces the lessons it teaches over time through access to additional resources as families begin to build wealth. Its mission is to help everyone who walks through its doors sort out their personal finances.
“It can be daunting if you were not born in this country, plus don’t speak English,” said MEDA Spokesperson Christopher Gil. “You come from another country where the rules are different and you need to understand finances. Our coaches help to break the concepts down and make community members comfortable.”
And while MEDA is focused on San Francisco’s Mission District, anyone in the Bay Area can contact the team at email@example.com to request assistance or discuss their situation.
Financial Coaching Can Offer a Fresh Start
MEDA’s home base is in San Francisco, and the agency helps people coming from other countries to live in the US. Most of its clients come from Mexico and other Central and South American countries. MEDA’s first order of business for new immigrants is helping them fill out documents and requesting materials that will put the families in the U.S. financial system.
MEDA helps families obtain their ITIN and Social Security number to start building credit. These documents will help families rent apartments, send their children to college, and apply for loans and scholarships.
“This is one huge opportunity for us to work on credit and establish credit for the first time for these families,” Jackie Marcelos, MEDA Associate Director of Asset Building Programs said.
The agency will set up families with safe financial products that help establish credit for the first time, or help rebuild credit for those who have made mistakes. One of those products is a secured credit card that does not require a client to put up money for it like most secured cards.
“By the end of the coaching lessons, our clients learn how to read a credit card statement, how to know what their minimum payment is or their spending maximum,” Marcelos said. “We help them establish a financial goal for repayment so they can spend wisely.”
The entire program lasts for one year, but clients can continue learning in the program after that first year. After graduating, MEDA advises clients on how to sign up for credit cards and how to select the right credit card for them.
Getting Clients Back on Track After the Pandemic
The COVID-19 Pandemic shook the entire globe to its core, causing many people to lose their jobs and left them without a paycheck for most of 2020. This is especially true for the Latino community in the US. A study by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, shows how Latinos in the US faced disproportionate health and economic impacts from the pandemic.
“They never got the same opportunity everybody else had to receive a place at the table,” Gil said. “We saw people displaced from their neighborhood, but we’ve been doing work to bring people back.”
MEDA said clients would come in and could not pay for rent or food. The agency worked tirelessly to help people navigate their financial options and fill out forms for rental assistance.
The agency helps clients work through foreclosures, but looks for ways to avoid them altogether. To this day, MEDA is working with the state of California to help clients receive mortgage relief.
MEDA is making progress, but its mission is not done yet. The agency is still creating new programs to help immigrants achieve the American dream. Right now, MEDA prides itself on being a resource for anyone who comes to its advisors searching for financial help.
“They are coming back even because they received a letter to their house and don’t know what it is,” Marcelos said. “They receive mail from the IRS because they haven’t received their refund stimulus check. So we have so many clients coming back for any reason.”
Helping Businesses Thrive Through Critical Partnerships
MEDA leverages the many partnerships it has with local organizations and businesses in California to help its clients. Its partnership with Bay Area Legal Aid helps clients go through legal situations, including bankruptcies or lawsuits from lenders.
MEDA will also help businesses fill out forms to receive 0% interest loans and grants to jump-start their businesses. Following the pandemic, MEDA is starting to see families and businesses it helps thriving instead of just surviving.
“We now see our resilient Latino community rebuilding,” Gil said. “Community members who came here as immigrants faced numerous barriers and learned how to overcome those obstacles. They then harnessed their resiliency to counteract the negative physical and economic effects of the COVID crisis.”
MEDA worked with its clients to stay away from high-interest credit cards and payday loans. The agency also taught clients how to pay off credit cards to avoid falling into a cycle of paying off interest and accruing debt.
With MEDA’s help, clients are able to keep their credit card usage to under 30% to increase credit scores. With the boost in credit, clients can finally start investing in their business and look into buying a home for their family.
During the pandemic, community members who needed additional help were able to go to the Mission neighborhood’s “Hub,” where MEDA and partner organizations temporarily set up shop so residents with dire needs could receive food, fill out relief applications and more.
MEDA’s holistic approach when working with clients helped them solve several problems all at once. Clients can find a new job and figure out spending for the entire family to see where they can save money.
“It’s not just advising what immediately needs to be done and what needs to be done for the next five years,” Gil said. “We work one-on-one with community members every step of the way to help fulfill their hopes and dreams for their family’s future.”
Those looking to support MEDA’s work and help further its mission can get involved through donations and other giving opportunities.