Tico wins White House award for pioneering immigrant credit unions in U.S.

Late last month, the White House honored a Costa Rican immigrant for his work expanding financial services to Latino and other recent immigrants in the United States. During a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on May 29, John Herrera received an “Immigrant Innovator Champions of Change” award for co-founding the Latino Community Credit Union in Durham, N.C., a national model for providing banking services to immigrants and underserved residents, according to a press release from the union.

As recently as 10 years ago, Herrera, who grew up in Paso Ancho, San José, said that Latino immigrants in North Carolina were viewed as “walking ATMs” by criminals who targeted them because of the large amounts of cash they carried in lieu of having a bank account. Ignored by for-profit banks and facing linguistic and cultural hurdles, many Latino immigrants in the state went without the basic financial services many living in the U.S. take for granted.

Herrera and others understood that this fast growing and sometimes-vulnerable population needed attention. Joining together with other community organizations and credit unions, Herrera co-founded the LCCU, the first fully bilingual financial institution in the state of North Carolina, in 2000, to provide immigrants from Latin America with bank accounts and other financial services.

While the LCCU provides a wide range of services for its members, including tax identification numbers, savings accounts and loans, Herrera argued that their most important service is financial education, adding that a majority of the credit union’s members have never had a bank account before.

As the Latino community grew in the state so did the credit union, expanding its membership to other recent immigrant and refugee communities from around the world that settled in the Tar Heel state. Today, the union has 55,000 members, according to its website.

The LCCU also boasts a delinquency rate below that of many for-profit banks and even other credit unions. “I’ve known immigrants who will take a second, third shift to pay back the loan, you just have to work with them. I trust poor people more than anyone else,” Herrera laughed.

LCCU is already thinking about the financial services many immigrants will need in the future. In 2012, the union developed a lending option in response to President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for so-called DREAMers, children who entered the U.S. illegally before the age of 16, to pay for the legal fees associated with deferring their deportation. Herrera estimated that the legal costs and fees associated with formalizing a family of four could cost up to $18,000 under the immigration reform bill debated by the U.S. Congress. 

Herrera received a scholarship in 1983 to study at the University of Delaware, where he met his first wife. The entrepreneur then graduated from North Carolina State University with a Master’s degree in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, with a concentration in community development in 1999. Along with his work as board vice chair at LCCU, Herrera is also vice president of Latino/Hispanic Affairs for the Center for Community Self-Help, a nonprofit organization dedicated to create and protect ownership and economic opportunity. He has since re-married and lives with his six children in Holly Springs, N.C.

Herrera was the first immigrant to win a municipal election in North Carolina and served for two terms on the Town of Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen.

“There’s a pride and a need that brings people together,” Herrera said of the credit union’s close relationship with its members. “Many people came [to the United States] for greater economic opportunities and we want to be sure everyone can take advantage of that.”