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Nonprofit brings loan program to Pennsylvania for immigrants who can’t afford legal assistance

Maegan Llerena, executive director of Make the Road Pennsylvania, lead protesters to block traffic outside U.S. Senator Bob Casey’s Philadelphia office at 20th and Market Streets, demanding Casey and President Joe Biden keep a path to citizenship for 11 million people living undocumented in the U.S. in the national budget, on November 4, 2021.
Kimberly Paynter
/
WHYY
Maegan Llerena, executive director of Make the Road Pennsylvania, lead protesters to block traffic outside U.S. Senator Bob Casey’s Philadelphia office at 20th and Market Streets, demanding Casey and President Joe Biden keep a path to citizenship for 11 million people living undocumented in the U.S. in the national budget, on November 4, 2021.

Low-income immigrants are often the targets of loan sharks, or have to rely on free legal clinics that might be too overwhelmed with cases to take on new clients.

In Pennsylvania, there is a new option for immigrants who cannot afford to hire an attorney for complicated legal cases.

Capital Good Fund, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit, expanded its national immigration lending program in December, in collaboration with the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).

The loans can be used for a variety of immigration-related purposes, including Green Card application, medical exams, travel to hearings and representation for asylum and deportation cases.

According to a 2016 American Immigration Council study, 37% of all immigrants and 14% of detained immigrants go to court with an attorney.

“Immigrants shouldn’t have to choose between putting food on the table and pursuing their American Dream,” says Andy Posner, Capital Good Fund founder and CEO. “So many families are eligible to improve their immigration status by applying for citizenship, a green card, or asylum; petitioning family members; fighting a deportation order, and more.”

Capital Good Fund loans are geared toward more complex immigration cases that normally would require a private attorney who can dedicate more resources.

“Our goal is to enable lower-income immigrants to have access to the very best attorneys out there,” Posner said.

The program offers loans of up to $20,000 with a 15.99% interest rate, and does not require a person to have a credit history. Instead, Capital Good Fund takes into account other factors, such as the person’s income, the cashflow into their bank account and regular expenses.

“All time 96% of our immigration clients have paid back. When they don’t, we work with them to restructure the loan, but eventually we just write it off. We don’t sell to collection agencies and as a matter of policy, so once we write it off, that’s it,” Posner said.

The lawyers on Capital Good Fund’s network are required to be members of AILA. And that organization ensures attorneys funded through the loans are reputable and vetted, Posner said.

Kelly Ryan, an immigration attorney in Colorado who is part of Capital Good Fund’s network, said she approached the nonprofit while researching funding options for her clients. Repayment plans are common in law firms and legal clinics, but for Ryan, who works with low-income victims of crime and domestic violence, such an arrangement could have a negative impact on the case.

“We can offer payment plans, but we don’t want to become the bill collector, because that harms the client attorney relationship, ” Ryan said. “And if the client owes us money, when they see us call, they might not answer their phone, and they might miss an important deadline. They might miss that the work permit has arrived.”

The lending program could also be an option for families that cannot afford legal services, but earn too much to be served by nonprofit legal clinics, which typically prioritize lower-income families.

Some immigration rights advocates that provide free or low-cost legal services view the program with cautious optimism. Anything that steers away people from scammers and predatory lending services is a good thing, said Adriana Zambrano, program coordinator at Aldea, The People’s Justice Center.

“For some people, all they need is kind of like a little break. They just need kind of like a little money to pay up front so they can get their cases started and go from there,” Zambrano said. “I do think that borrowing money, even with good intentions, can lead to a debt burden for individuals that are already facing economic challenges.”

Aldea attorneys have also been assisting people who recently arrived in the United States, and might not have a bank account or any kind of formal documentation of income. Those kinds of clients would not be able to benefit from Capital Good Fund, since the program requires people to have a bank account.