Edward Zayzay, a Liberian immigrant currently pursuing citizenship, extolls the value of the micro-loans to help immigrants begin the citizenship process at Casa De Maryland's headquarters.
The process of becoming a U.S. citizen can be a long and expensive one for immigrants, but a new program in Maryland is trying to ease at least one of those burdens.
Take Edward Zayzay, a native Liberian, who first came to the United States to go to college. After graduating with a degree in accounting, he decided to stay. There were a lot of economic reasons to do so, but also one economic hurdle: the $675 fee to start the naturalization process.
"There's more opportunity here. There's a freedom in this country...you can do whatever you want to do," he says. "It's not easy, but it's possible. This is the only country you can have those things. In other parts of the world, you have no way out."
Zayzay did hold on to his Liberian roots though, even as the country fell into brutal civil war. It was that war, actually, that was a turning point in his decision to pursue U.S. citizenship. He returned to Liberia earlier this year, and what he saw made a lasting impression.
"I saw the massive destruction," he says. "And then it added up ... either go on with this, or to become a United States citizen." Zayzay chose the latter, even if it meant paying the $675 fee while unemployed.
Zayzay's plight is common, says Casa de Maryland executive director Gustavo Torres, which is why the immigrant services group is starting a micro-loan program to help those who want to be citizens but can't pay the fee. (The fee has tripled during the past few years.)
Micro-loans are not common in the U.S., but have been successful in other countries, Torres adds.
"In other countries, when it's a micro-loan, they pay 99 percent of the time. It's amazing," he says. "And we believe that will be the same situation here in the United States."
Torres says the interest rate for the loan is 9 percent, something they negotiated with banks and believe is fair. In addition, "it's a good opportunity to make sure that we will receive the money back to lend the money to other people," he says.
The loans offer another benefit outside of helping immigrants become citizens, points out Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who was on hand Tuesday as Casa de Maryland unveiled the program.
"In today's economy, building a credit history is important, Van Hollen says. And for new immigrants and non-citizens it can be very difficult to build up that credit history."
Only legal permanent residents in Maryland can receive the micro-loans for now, but leaders hope to expand the program if it's successful.