Participants in the Lending Circles for Dreamers loan program at Mission Asset fund.

This year, Itzel’s favorite Christmas gift came a little bit early.

With the holiday less than a week away, her day had started out typically enough. She didn’t expect to find much when she ambled home from school and opened her mailbox. But when the box creaked open and she peeked inside, something special caught her eye.

“I was so happy,” she recalled. “It was a moment when I finally felt the doors open … it was a blessing.”

What Itzel found lying inside her mailbox just days before Christmas was a work authorization card from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Itzel (who asked that her last name not be used, to protect her identity) is an undocumented immigrant and a student at San Francisco City College. She moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 4 years old. For as long as she could remember, her undocumented status had been a barrier to getting things like a driver’s license or a job. But that all changed when she received her work authorization, thanks to Lending Circles for Dreamers, a loan program started by the Mission Asset Fund, a local nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to low-income and immigrant families.

To get the work authorization card, Itzel had to apply to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and be accepted. To apply, she needed $465. The Dreamers loan program, which specifically assists people applying for DACA, made this possible.

DACA, launched by President Barack Obama in June 2012, allows immigrants under the age of 31 who came to the United States before age 16 to obtain work permits and protection from deportation. For thousands of undocumented students, DACA provides a crucial first step: a way to finally secure employment without fear of deportation.

Yet for many financially distressed applicants, the price tag for the federal program is just too high.

For Itzel, that’s where Mission Asset Fund stepped in. Through Lending Circles for Dreamers, the fund grants applicants a $155 donation match, saving them a third of the $465 fee, and loans them $310 at no interest, to be paid off in monthly installments.

Members of lending circles deposit money into a common pool, which is then loaned to members of the circle. The members of Lending Circles for Dreamers pay back their loans in installments of $31 a month for 10 months or $62 a month for five months. So far, all applicants have chosen the $31 option.

“It was a great opportunity for me,” Itzel said. “Not only do they give you a $150 donation, but I feel like making the monthly payments brought responsibility to me. You build this routine of paying your bills on time. It’s been a really good experience for me, because I’m a college student. I don’t think I would have been able to do the application if I hadn’t done this program.”

Itzel’s predicament isn’t unique — there are many students just like her across the country. According to research by the Migration Policy Institute, 1.76 million youth nationwide are eligible for deferred action.

Yet Lending Circles for Dreamers is the first program of its kind, said José Quiñonez, the Mission Asset Fund’s executive director. Other organizations help people with the complexities of the application process and paperwork, but none have adopted the lending circle model to finance the application fee.

“Basically what we’re doing is not only helping them finance the application, but we really are using their own money to do so, and do[ing] it in a way that is very common and traditional in our communities,” Quiñonez said, referring to similar lending systems, called tandas, that are common in Latin America.

“We’re not claiming that we invented the idea,” said Alejandra Guillen, the program manager for Lending Circles for Dreamers. “We’re just taking what folks are familiar with and formalizing it for the U.S. financial system.”

Apparently it’s paying off: In just seven months, the program has reached 140 participants. And, Quiñonez noted, it has a 100 percent repayment rate.

While participants haven’t finished a full cycle yet – the ones farthest along are only at month seven of repayment – there are about 10 who, like Itzel, have submitted their applications and received work authorizations.

For Itzel, the real reward came last week, when she worked her first job ever, catering a wedding in Lafayette.

“It felt great,” she said giddily. “There came a moment where we had to fill out our time cards and social security numbers. And I was like, yeah! I have social security and I filled it in. I kind of feel normal now, you know?”

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