Irene Caudillo’s father, a Mexican immigrant, didn’t get a bank account until he was 62 years old. He was typical of many immigrants, then and now — wary of banks and unaware that mortgages and business loans are available to them. The unbanked, as they’re called, end up more likely to stay in cash jobs and live in rental units.
Give them access to credit, however, and “immigrants now have the ability to buckle down, save for down payments, and have a clear idea about where they want to be,” says Caudillo, the CEO of El Centro, a Kansas City nonprofit that provides financial education and legal support to Latino workers and their families.
A second-generation Mexican-American, Caudillo, is well-positioned to understand why immigrants struggle, and to see the economic contributions they make, particularly when provided access to education and resources. Kansas housing markets, for example, have gotten a boost from Latinos who have access to banking services. In Caudillo’s county, the presence of immigrants increased housing prices by an average of $1,891 between 2000 and 2010, according to a 2015 analysis by the American Immigration Council.
The financial-literacy training El Centro offers is critical to the success of immigrants and, by extension, to the economic vitality of the community at large. “We started out just providing emergency assistance, but now we’re also about building assets for the future,” Caudillo says. As immigrants grow more financially literate, they start opening businesses of their own, buying homes, and establishing a more permanent and productive presence in their new community.
It’s a struggle for our undocumented and mixed-status families, because there’s no system like the one my grandmothers were able to use.
Recognizing the net economic benefits that immigrants offer, some cities have begun taking steps to attract immigrants, such as by expanding educational services. “It became an opportunity to welcome rather than to criticize,” Caudillo says. Contrary to what some people believe, Hispanic immigrants aren’t taking Americans’ jobs, she says. in fact, when jobs aren’t readily available in a given place, many Hispanic immigrants simply move on and find work elsewhere, she says. “Between 2006 to 2009, when the American housing market crashed and unemployment was crazy, we saw a lot of people migrate back to Mexico.”
That means the immigrants who do settle in Kansas tend to be those who’ve found lasting, gainful employment and become accepted, essential members of their communities, Caudillo explains. Indeed, she says, while there are plenty of recent immigrants, on average the undocumented immigrants that El Centro works with have been in the Kansas City area for 15 to 20 years. Many now have greater ties to Kansas than to their native country.
Still, federal action is needed to help immigrants realize their potential and make a fuller contribution to their communities, Caudillo says. About a quarter of El Centro’s clients are undocumented, many arriving in Kansas City with little more than the clothes on their backs and a firm belief that they’ll find a better life in America. “One of the things that is most amazing is the courage it takes to be able to come in knowing almost no one,” she says.
Caudillo wistfully recalls the simpler immigration system that allowed both her grandmothers to move from Mexico and put down roots in America in the 1920s. The family still has receipts for the 2- and 3-cent fees they paid to travel back and forth across the border with ease. The immigration system doesn’t allow for that any more, of course,” Caudillo says. “It’s a struggle for our undocumented and mixed-status families, because there’s no system like the one my grandmothers were able to use.”
Caudillo knows it isn’t realistic to hope for a return to those days. What is needed, though, is a system that provides a plausible pathway to citizenship for hardworking, tax-paying undocumented immigrants, she says. If that includes penalties or a waiting period, that’s fine, as long as there’s some credible route to authorized status. “That’s what’s missing. People don’t understand there’s currently no line to stand in,” she says. “There’s no right way to do things.”