St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on Wednesday unveiled a program that will provide up to $2,000 in no-interest loans to residents who need help covering the costs of applications for naturalization or other immigrant benefits.

The New American Loan Program, which launches Monday, is the latest in a slate of city and Ramsey County efforts to support immigrant residents. At a news conference outside City Hall, Carter also announced the continuation of the city attorney's Welcoming St. Paul program, which advocates for immigrant communities and helps connect them with legal resources such as the St. Paul Immigrant Legal Defense Fund launched in 2019 to support low-income residents who are detained and cannot afford legal representation.

"We know that when immigrants become naturalized, their ability to participate in our community, their ability to participate in our economy, their ability to contribute to our city increases tremendously," Carter said. "We are looking forward to continuing to build our economy not by luring in folks from out of town, but by ensuring that we double down and always invest in and bet on the unlimited potential of our neighbors."

Immigrants and refugees accounted for 20% of St. Paul's population in 2019, compared with the national average of 13%, according to a report published Wednesday by New American Economy, a research fund that partnered with the city, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Welcoming America to collect and analyze data.

The report said immigrants held $966.2 million, or 15%, of St. Paul's total spending power in 2019. Immigrants also filled 35% of manufacturing jobs in the city and represented 33% of its entrepreneurs.

The city is partnering with Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union to create the New American Loan Program. Joel Swanson, Affinity Plus' vice president of marketing, said St. Paul has looked to similar initiatives in San Francisco and Seattle to devise plans for the fairly novel program.

"We know that our residents who are seeking immigration and naturalization services face an array of barriers," he said. "Finances shouldn't be one of them."

St. Paul residents seeking the program's support can contact the city or Affinity Plus, Swanson said. He added that there is no limit to how many residents the program will assist, and Affinity Plus hopes to maintain relationships with immigrants receiving loans and eventually expand the program beyond St. Paul.

Loan applicants will pay a $75 fee but will get a $50 refund once the loan is repaid, Swanson said. The city is contributing $25,000 to cover potential losses, though Swanson said financial institutions involved in similar programs are not reporting large defaults.

The city is also spending $25,000 on efforts to engage immigrants in the community through activities such as legal workshops and clinics, as well as $100,000 to continue supporting the immigrant legal defense fund. Ramsey County is contributing $75,000 to the legal program, according to county spokesman John Siqveland.

The defense fund — a collaboration of the city and county, the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, the Advocates for Human Rights and the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid — has paid for consultations with 242 residents and representation for 25 clients, according to County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter.

At the news conference, 20-year-old Damu Vang said his father was ordered to return to Laos last year after living in Minnesota for nearly 40 years. An attorney from the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, with support from the legal defense program, successfully helped him challenge the order.

"Without him, I know that we would have fallen apart," Vamu said of his father, who also has three younger daughters in St. Paul. "Our family is so thankful for getting this opportunity … to finally be able to live as one happy family in this great country."