Suzy Fonseca remembers traveling with her family from California to Washington and back, following the crop seasons along the way.
She pitched in to harvest hops, cherries, and other crops, and to pick the slugs off the raspberry plants. She speaks from experience when she says, “Farm labor is hard work.”
Today Fonseca is president/CEO of Lower Valley Credit Union in Sunnyside, Wash., a community in the rural southeastern part of the state, whose residents are 88% Hispanic. She started working at the $100 million asset credit union as a teller 18 years ago, becoming CEO in 2011.
Most of the credit union’s 13,000 members and 50 employees have experiences similar to Fonseca, who’s a first-generation American. They understand the challenges facing farm laborers.
“Our staff can relate to the fact that in the winter, these members won’t have food on the table if they don’t budget for it,” Fonseca says. “And if the harvest is bad, they won’t have a job come spring.”
The credit union’s members have three key needs, and Lower Valley serves all three:
1. Financial counseling;
2. Affordable loans; and
3. Assistance gaining citizenship.
Used-car loans comprise a major part of the loan portfolio. Lower Valley has been making individual tax identification number (ITIN) loans for three decades, Fonseca says, to enable noncitizen members to get car loans. Now some are obtaining mortgages, as well.
“They’ve built their credit with help from financial counseling,” she says. “Now they’re eligible for real estate loans. That has a huge impact on our community. We have a lot of renters who need a loan source to buy homes.”
In the past, farm laborers often turned to their employers for home loans because they didn’t trust financial institutions.
Many farmers wanted to help their workers who had been with them for years, even decades and through generations. But they also wanted those workers to build credit and learn about budgeting.
Now those employers can steer people to Lower Valley for both mortgage loans and financial education. “We’ve had good relationships with a number of farmers around here,” Fonseca says.
Lower Valley also has created a “Path to U.S. Citizenship” program. Lack of citizenship hurts many people in the community, Fonseca points out. Working in partnership with other community organizations, Lower Valley hosts daylong sessions that bring together immigration attorneys and others to assist with citizenship applications.
People make appointments and are prescreened to be sure they qualify for citizenship. Those who attend leave with a completed application ready to drop in the mail with a check.
Fonseca recognizes immigration is a controversial topic, but Lower Valley sees citizenship help, as well as financial help, as part of its mission. For 80 years, credit unions have been helping American workers, no matter where they came from originally.
“It’s who we are and what we do,” Fonseca says. “We serve the underserved. It just so happens that the underserved market in our area is Hispanic.”