April 18, 2023
Photo by Micheile Henderson
Erika Macias didn’t speak English when she migrated to the United States from Mexico, let alone understand the complexity of our credit and financial systems. Building credit in order to purchase things like a car and a house seemed like a monumental task.
Erika’s experience mirrors those of many immigrants who come to America. Walking into an institution and speaking a different language than all the employees can lead to fear, confusion, and misunderstanding. Many immigrants lack education about how U.S. financial systems operate.
Erika’s place of employment, Des Moines Metro Credit Union (DMMCU), is breaking down those barriers for the Hispanic immigrant community in Des Moines. With culturally attentive support and financial products designed to build one’s credit, DMMCU provides a welcoming, inclusive environment that empowers Hispanic immigrants to gain control of their financial futures.
Des Moines Metro Credit Union was founded in 1938 to serve employees of the City of Des Moines. It became a community credit union serving other employer groups and individuals in 1997. At that time, executives considered opening another branch and decided to take a deep look at how they were serving the local population.
“We reevaluated our strategic plan and realized we weren’t serving the people around us very well,” said DMMCU Executive Vice President Traci Stiles.
The credit union's location is near 2nd Avenue and University. Nearby are two hospitals, a variety of businesses, and an active downtown. Housing in this area is more affordable than other parts of the city, which has allowed underserved communities to establish there. Residents in these neighborhoods include immigrants from Latin American, African, and Asian countries. In short, the credit union’s members come from all types of backgrounds.
Determined to do better, DMMCU focused first on services for the local Hispanic community. They hired Traci out of college because she spoke Spanish, and then they advertised that they had bilingual services available. After that, when an employee would leave, they recruited more Spanish speakers.
When DMMCU began its Hispanic outreach efforts, less than 1% of Des Moines' population identified as Hispanic. Today, that number is closer to 14%. By comparison, 32% of DMMCU customers identify as Hispanic and nearly 80% of the credit union’s employees speak Spanish (that's 10 out of 13).
"You can basically see the relief on people's faces when they walk in and they meet someone who speaks their language," Traci said.
Erika, who is a Business Development Manager at DMMCU and also co-founder of the bilingual media company Hola Iowa, emphasized that the cultural familiarity between the bank and its clients helps to build trust. Once that trust is established, the bank is better able to understand and meet the needs of its members.
“Once a potential member walks in the door, we try to make that connection with them,” Erika said. “Once we have that relationship, we have that trust, and then we’re able to do the rest.”
Lacking an understanding of how to navigate financial systems is often a barrier to success for many people in America. Immigrants in particular face their own set of challenging circumstances when it comes to language barriers and documentation.
Des Moines Metro Credit Union allows people with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN), a tax processing number from the IRS for individuals who do not have a Social Security number, to obtain a loan, build their credit, or open an interest-bearing account. Members are also able to use their matricula consular (an identity card issued by Mexican consulates to Mexican residents who reside outside of Mexico) or an identification card from their country of origin to open a Safe Account, which are non-interest bearing accounts.
Not many financial institutions will do ITIN lending or allow individuals to open accounts with these types of identification, which leaves a group of vulnerable people unable to bank safely.
“Sometimes, immigrants will pay $60-$80 to cash their checks somewhere else just because they can’t open an account somewhere,” Erika said.
One of the more significant challenges immigrants face when they come to America is their lack of credit, which keeps them from being able to obtain loans to purchase items like a home or car. To help the immigrant population build their credit in a safe and secure manner, DMMCU offers a credit building program that has had 640 graduates, 80% of whom are Hispanic.
“Participants have to be a member for 30 days before they can apply for that credit builder loan. It’s a $500 loan, and most people that apply don’t have any credit at all and use an ITIN,” Traci said. “Once they graduate from that program, they go on to the second part, which gives them another small dollar loan and a credit card with a $500 credit. This teaches them to use credit and a credit card. We see a lot of people go on to get a car loan and a few even get a home loan.”
Being a good community partner has led to better business results, and vice versa. Traci said industry trends are showing the benefits to working with underserved populations, and more financial institutions are starting to take notice. Because DMMCU began focusing on serving the Hispanic community nearly two decades ago, they have been able to instill this focus as a core value at every level of their business.
DMMCU understands that financial instability often hinders an immigrant’s experience when navigating the United States’ immigration systems. Their focus on Safe Accounts, which do not accrue interest, allows immigrants to access safe banking without fear of legal punishment.
Buy-in from every level of the credit union is critical to DMMCU’s operations. “From our board of directors to our management and to our staff; we’re all on the same page and we’re all doing the same thing,” Traci said. “We’re not here to determine if someone is documented or undocumented. We’re here to determine what documents they have to open an account. We genuinely want to help people.”
Employees are able to focus more on solutions for the credit union members when community partnership is such an important value.
“We try to help members in any way we can. But if we cannot, we will always refer them,” Erika said. “We are open to anything that can help our members. It’s a passion that we have for our large community.”
DMMCU has worked to build relationships with nonprofit and service organizations in the area to provide holistic, supportive services to the community. In partnership with the Evelyn K. Davis Center, the credit union offers financial education to families in need. The credit union was also a sponsor of the Iowa Latino Heritage Festival and the opening of the Latino Center of Iowa in Des Moines. Their bilingual employees also volunteer as translators for conferences in the Des Moines Public Schools.
Traci explained that the general credit union philosophy is “people helping people.” Des Moines Metro Credit Union has taken that philosophy in a new direction, ensuring that people who have historically not received as much help are able to access the same tools as everyone else. The credit union’s dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workplaces stems from a place of genuine care.
“DEI is so hot right now,” Traci said. “Where I see DEI sometimes fail in the workplace is that there’s not layers of trust and belief within the organization. We have that down. All of the layers of our credit union know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and believe in what we’re doing.”