Meet The MacArthur Genius Helping Immigrants Come Out Of The Financial Shadows

One of this year’s grant winners is a former undocumented immigrant who is proving every day why Donald Trump is so wrong.

Meet The MacArthur Genius Helping Immigrants Come Out Of The Financial Shadows

José Quiñonez is living proof that immigrants thrive when given the chance. Thirty-six years ago, he slipped into California illegally from Mexico with five siblings and “nothing but the clothes on [his] back.” Now, he’s picking up one of the most prestigious prizes available to American citizens: a 2016 MacArthur Fellowship that comes with $625,000 (a so-called “Genius Grant”).


Not bad for someone of a group Donald Trump brands as rapists.

Quiñonez proves the lie of Trump’s rhetoric not only in his own life story, but also in the immigrants he works with. In the last decade, his Mission Asset Fund has helped more than 6,000 newcomers build credit histories and thus join the mainstream financial system.

Mission Asset Fund (MAF) formalizes the ancient and widespread practice of lending circles, or, in Spanish, “cundinas” and “tandas.” That’s when groups of people get together and put money into a pot, taking turns each month to spend the collective amount. The arrangement helps participants to buy assets and pay off debt, and, in MAF’s version, to start creating a credit history that makes them attractive to financial institutions.

“This activity has been going for millennia, but because we track it and record it, and report it, it is also a strategy to improve credit scores. Without a history like that in this country, it’s like not having a passport,” Quiñonez says.

Crucially, as well as tracking payments to each pool, MAF also guarantees the loan in case any of the participants can’t pay. Although it turns out that isn’t really necessary. In nine years of organizing tandas, MAF has seen a non-payment rate of only 0.7%.

“The rhetoric we have in our society of poor people and immigrants is wrong,” Quiñonez says. “Just because they’re poor, they’re still decent. There’s a lot of good things happening in people’s lives, but when we don’t give them credit, we don’t recognize them.”


Suffice to say, Quiñonez isn’t voting for Trump this year. When he saw the Republican’s announcement speech (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”) he was “mortified.” He’s strongly in Clinton’s camp, because she’s proposed a path to citizenship for the 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Quiñonez himself was naturalized after the 1986 amnesty, signed into law by President Reagan.

MAF’s work has been recognized before. It’s received a $1.5 million grant over three years from the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation and several grants from Experian, the credit bureau. Both groups recognize that expanding potential customer bases makes sense in the long run, Quiñonez says. If only Trump would see things similarly.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.