Nine Digits Away
When Erika Campos left Venezuela in 1994, she was a 21-year-old with a degree in international business under her belt. She didn’t expect to stay in the United States for long — just long enough to learn English for her future career.
Leaving her parents behind, she came to the U.S. as an undocumented student in community college in Durham, which cost her $1,500 every three months in addition to living expenses. Campos paid her way by baby-sitting and cleaning houses. She couldn’t afford a car, so getting to classes and work was tough.
Meanwhile, the political landscape in Venezuela was worsening. A 1992 coup d’état by Hugo Chavez and his supporters had resulted in several years of civil unrest and political confusion. The possibility for Campos to build a stable career in her home country began to disappear.
“My mother said, ‘If you can stay, you should because things here are not getting better. If you leave, it’s going to be hard for you to get back to the United States,’” she said.
So Campos stayed. She missed her parents back home, and since she was unable to get approved for a student visa, it didn’t get any easier for her to pay for school and live comfortably.
After several years of hardship, she met her future husband, Mario, an immigrant from El Salvador who, along with his mother, had been granted asylum from the United States due to El Salvador’s civil war. The two dated for a year before they were married.
“When I met him, he was already a citizen,” Campos said. “It sounds sad to say it, but people will say, ‘Did you get married to get your papers?’ and I will say, ‘Yes, I’m not going to lie to you. If you were in my situation, what would you do?” I was already 26, 27 years old. These things had to be done.”
Marrying her husband got Campos one thing that she says changed her life: a Social Security number.
For many Americans, a Social Security number is a possession owned from birth, a set of nine digits memorized early in life and then placed on the backburner until there’s a form to fill out. But for many Hispanics, those nine digits are the only thing standing in the way of building a life for their families. Without one, it’s much harder to get a home, a car, insurance and even a bank account.
North Carolina has one of the fastest-growing populations of Hispanics in the country. The rate of homeownership for Hispanics in the state is 43 percent, compared to 74 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 48 percent for non-Hispanic blacks, according to the Pew Research Center.
The same report shows that 71 percent of foreign-born Hispanics in the state lack health insurance, compared with 18 percent of native-born Hispanics and 12 percent of whites.
A major factor in those disparities are the policies of major financial institutions, said Silvia Rincon, spokeswoman for North Carolina’s Latino Community Credit Union. Most banks use customers’ credit scores to determine their interest rate, charging up to 30 percent interest or more on loans to anyone with an undesirable score.
Many undocumented or recently immigrated Hispanics and Latinos, Rincon said, have either a poor score or no score at all. They often pay for necessities in cash, which doesn’t establish a credit history. The types of payments low-income people are likely to make — such as cell phone and rent payments — generally aren’t considered when financial institutions determine a person’s credit score.
According to a May 2015 report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, about 11 percent of American adults, or 26 million people, are credit invisible, meaning they have no credit history on record with any major credit-reporting company. Hispanics are more likely to fall into that category than blacks or whites.
Though lending standards have been strict in the U.S. since the financial crisis of 2008, Rincon said many Hispanics end up paying more because they have not established credit. For example, someone unable to create a bank account might use check cashing services, which often take a percentage of each check that’s cashed. Or if a person with bad credit has to buy a car for work, they might pay up to 30 percent interest or more.
“For people that don’t have the necessary documentation, they’re so exposed to predatory lenders that perpetuate the poverty cycle,” Rincon said. “Being excluded from opportunities is very expensive.”
Today, Campos and her husband have three children: twin daughters Alejandra and Isabella, 11, and Luis Mario, 12. Campos also has a 17-year-old stepdaughter, Kierra, who lived with the family for 15 years before moving to live with her mother.
Campos is just a couple of classes away from an Afro- and African-American and Diaspora Studies degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, after taking just one class per semester for several years. A highly engaged student, she often speaks up in class and stays after to talk with her professors. When she speaks, she’s animated and passionate, especially about issues of social justice.
Someday, she says, she hopes to do Latino advocacy work in the public health sector.
Campos has worked for seven years at UNC Hospitals doing field research and outreach for an obstetrician-gynecologist, which she says brings her into the homes of many low-income people, many of them Hispanic.
“Social Security, believe it or not, is a big component for everything you need to get here. For the Hispanic community, it’s just — can you just allow them to have that, and then you will have less of a problem?” she said.
“These people save money. If they want to buy a house, they work two, three jobs. That will help your economy.”
When Campos was first living in the United States, she was able to get a driver’s license, though she couldn’t afford a car. Today, a Social Security number is required even for that.
“It is way harder now,” she said. “Before, I think I was lucky that I didn’t have to go through so many steps. They were more flexible, they were more open.”
Erica Sosa volunteers for El Centro Hispano in Carrboro, a Latino advocacy organization. She is a legal immigrant, but her credit score isn’t very good because she doesn’t make much in income, and she often pays bills late because she doesn’t have the money.
Sosa, a single mother who is not yet completely fluent in English, said her situation has gotten worse since the father of her children was deported and can no longer pay child support.
“I don’t have any other support,” she said.
The Latino Community Credit Union, Rincon said, tries to help immigrants like Sosa begin building wealth despite their situation. The LCCU was founded in the early 2000s after a rash of burglaries in Hispanic homes, where families often stored their assets in cash.
The bank began providing loans at a flat interest rate regardless of credit score and accepting members who didn’t have Social Security numbers.
Today, the bank has ballooned to 11 total branches and serves 60,000 members in North Carolina, 90 percent of them low-income.
“It’s funny because what we have done is shown a lot of success,” Rincon said. “When we compare with other financial institutions — our collections rates are really low, meaning our members pay our loans. They pay on time, they pay well.”
According to LCCU’s 15-year financial report, their members’ repayment rate on loans is 99 percent.
José Luna works for Banco de la Gente (The People’s Bank) in Raleigh, a small bank tucked in a strip mall next to a Gamestop and a Starbucks that provides services much like LCCU’s. Luna said most banks are afraid to take on the risk they see in providing loans to undocumented immigrants.
But, he said, those fears turn out to be mostly unfounded.
“They have a flight risk. You give an illegal immigrant a loan, and he takes out that whole loan — there’s a possibility he’ll leave the country and never come back,” Luna said.
“But most of the time, people try to get mortgage loans because they want to establish something here.”
Campos said her conversations with people have shown how big a toll it takes on people to be living in the United States but be kept from buying a home or a car and building a life here.
“A lot of these people who would usually never drink and never use drugs — when they’re here by themselves, they start using drugs,” Campos said. “They miss their family, and what are they going to do? They’re going to drink or use drugs to not remember their family.”
Campos herself, who has been separated from her parents for more than two decades, said it’s even harder to be away from home when you don’t feel accepted in the United States, either.
“They see it, they know it, they see the racial problems,” she said.
As a legal immigrant and now that she is married with a family, Campos reaches out when she sees someone struggling.
Sometimes that means allowing someone to register a car under her or her husband’s name, despite the insurance liability.
She remembers what it was like when financial security and a stable family life were just nine digits away.