Financial Access Hard to Get for Immigrants

Nisha Agarwal (Photo by Emilia David for Voices of NY)

Nisha Agarwal at a briefing held by the Northwest Queens Financial Education Network on Feb. 25. To her right is Imtiaz Hossain of Chhaya CDC, one of the member groups of the network. (Photo by Emilia David for Voices of NY)

Chungta Gurung, who lives in Queens, tried to open a bank account to no avail.

She gets paid in cash but refuses to deposit the money to her friends’ and family’s bank accounts for fear she won’t have easy access to it.

“Every day I worry that I might be robbed and all the hard-earned cash I made will be stolen,” Gurung said in a testimonial.

Gurung is just one of many New Yorkers — some of whom are new immigrants — who have trouble dealing with formal financial institutions like banks. The problems range from needing proper IDs to open accounts, to lack of language access to high bank fees according to a new report released by the Northwest Queens Financial Education Network.

These impediments have caused many immigrants to use so-called “fringe” financial services like check cashers and remittance centers to do their banking. Many, like Gurung, keep the money they make either at home or with them at all times.

The Northwest Queens Financial Education Network — made up of community-based organizations helping new immigrants — found immigrants regularly save money but very few have or use a checking account.

The groups collected 253 surveys, provided in Spanish, Bangla, Nepali and Tibetan.

Queens is one of the most diverse communities in the United States. Over the past three years, 75,000 new immigrants from countries like Mexico, Bangladesh and Nepal have settled in the borough.

Northwest Queens, in particular, which encompasses the neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Sunnyside, Woodside and Elmhurst, encapsulates the different ethnicities that make Queens so diverse. Ethnic groceries selling Indian food and Latino staples share a block with a salon operated by South Asian women. In Woodside check cashers and Western Union offices dot the streets. Even stores that sell various items have a dedicated remittance counter. Bank branches are few and far between.

Community-based groups said this diversity means banks must be better equipped to serve customers.

Some residents, particularly those who speak South Asian languages, have difficulty using banks. Survey respondents noted that it was difficult for them to conduct business in English.

“Language access is a very important issue. Banks should be more attuned to their customers in the community,” said Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs at a briefing held by the Northwest Queens Financial Education Network on the release of the report.

To combat issues like language access, the groups laid out recommendations it hopes will be taken up by city agencies and financial institutions.

These recommendations include ensuring community-based groups are given more resources to provide culturally appropriate services and language access to customers, lower minimum-balance requirements and fee elimination, acceptance by the banks and credit unions of the new IDNYC as a primary ID to open financial accounts in Queens.

For immigrants like Gurung who are afraid that they will be robbed of all the cash they keep outside of a bank, these recommendations would definitely make life better.

“I hope I can get a debit card now because it will make shopping easy,” she said.

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