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Immigrant reform might raise price of citizenship

By Star-Advertiser staff

LAST UPDATED: 08:15 a.m. HST, Feb 02, 2014

EDINBURG, Texas >> Hilda Vasquez squirreled away the money for her U.S. citizenship application by selling batches of homemade tamales at South Texas offices. Carmen Zalazar picked up extra babysitting jobs at night after caring for kids all day in Houston.

The women scrimped and saved for months to pay for the $680 application, but for other applicants in the future, it might not be enough.

As President Barack Obama renews his quest for immigration reform, some proposals would impose fines of $2,000 on top of application fees, making the financial hurdles much taller for people who are here illegally.

"You have more rights when you are a citizen, like to vote," said Zalazar, a legal resident. As soon as she started a citizenship class, "I started to save because I knew otherwise it won't be possible."

The struggle is familiar to millions of immigrants. A 2012 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that only 46 percent of Hispanic immigrants eligible to become citizens had done so. The top two reasons were lack of English skills and lack of money to pay for the application.

Manuel Enrique Angel made learning English his first priority upon arriving in Houston from his native El Salvador two years ago. He now speaks English clearly and deliberately and plans to apply for citizenship as soon as he becomes eligible later this year.

Trained as a lawyer in El Salvador, the 28-year-old works as a cook in a Houston burger joint. His wife, an American citizen, is a hair stylist. He estimates it will take him up to eight months to save the money for the citizenship application.

"It's really hard when you have to pay rent around $600, when you have car notes for $300 and $500," Angel said.

Republican supporters of the proposed fines say penalties are necessary to defend against any appearance that creating a pathway to citizenship amounts to amnesty.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that supports tighter immigration controls, said if immigrants who are in the country illegally are allowed to seek citizenship, they should have to pay the costs, which will increase if millions of applications need to be processed.

However, he said, the costs should not be so high that people can't afford them.

"It's stupid to price people out of the market," Krikorian said.

Angel plans to take advantage of a program at a Houston credit union that offers small low-interest loans specifically to help clients become citizens. The Promise Credit Union partners with Neighborhood Centers Inc., a nonprofit network of community centers in the Houston area that cater to immigrants.

Credit union President Randy Martinez said the program began as a pilot in 2012 and only officially started last fall.

"We don't want that to become an obstacle for them not to become citizens, just because they don't have the entire fee to pay," he said.

The credit union's $455 loans include $380 toward the citizenship process plus a $75 processing fee for the loan application. They carry a fixed 5 percent interest rate for a 12-month term, so the monthly payments work out to about $38.

Applicants must contribute $300 of their own money. They are all pre-screened by the Neighborhood Centers legal team to make sure they qualify for citizenship and have all the necessary documentation.

The credit union has already discussed expanding the loans if Congress approves a reform package that offers people in the country illegally a costlier path to citizenship, Martinez said.

An immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in June did not set the costs of the proposed 13-year path to citizenship. Lawmakers left that up to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, with the idea that fees would make the system self-sustaining.

While the fees remain unspecified, the Senate bill lays out penalties totaling $2,000 to be paid at various steps along the way. The legislation would create a new status called "registered provisional immigrant" and require anyone with that status to pay taxes.

During the 13-year wait, immigrants would be "working on the books, and you will hopefully be able to make a better income and be progressing in your life," said Ellen Battistelli, a policy analyst with the National Immigration Law Center, who has argued against making the process too costly.

"There are so many requirements and financial burdens, this is a very rigorous path to go," especially for low-wage workers, Battistelli said.

On Thursday, the House released its immigration-reform principles, which included no special path to citizenship for the 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally but would make those here illegally "pay significant fines and back taxes" to gain legal status.

In an interview with CNN broadcast Friday, the president signaled that he may consider legislation that does not offer a path to citizenship -- a noticeable shift from his previous position, which was that it "doesn't make sense" to leave that aspect of immigration unresolved.

On Friday, Obama reiterated his preference for a concrete route to citizenship but said he doesn't want to "prejudge" what might land on his desk.

Vasquez and Zalazar, both legal residents in their 50s, did not have to work in the shadows, and both took citizenship classes.

During Zalazar's classs at the Baker-Ripley Community Center in Houston's diverse Gulfton neighborhood, teacher Crystal Gonzalez asked the class how much it cost to become a U.S. citizen. Several hands shot up.

"How many of you have $680 that you can spend tomorrow?" Gonzalez asked.

No hands, just a few nervous giggles and rubbing of temples.

"We're already telling people to start saving money with regard to the reform," Gonzalez said later. "We don't want people to be held back because they don't have the money."


Sherman can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/chrisshermanAP . Plushnick-Masti can be followed at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP .

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Grimbold wrote:
Why do all the Mexican want to leave their own country and invade ours? And why do we not fight it? And why is important issue Nr.1 in USA with people is "jobs", while we allow our jobs to be taken by invaders? Are we manipulated into thinking that immigration is good for us by powerful business interests who are the ones to profit from it ?
on February 2,2014 | 07:19AM
Bdpapa wrote:
They leave because they get free medical. We are enablers. That question answers itself. You darn right, they work cheap and for cash.
on February 2,2014 | 08:07AM
eoe wrote:
Oh right, "free medical." Must ... turn ... off ... Fox ...
on February 2,2014 | 09:44AM
Bdpapa wrote:
Sorry, don't watch national news!
on February 2,2014 | 07:12PM
BRock wrote:
I think the country actually needs the immigrants to grow our economy and not stagnate like so many other industrialized nations. Why do you suppose European countries rely on massive immigration to keep themselves going. As for "invading" our country, historically most of the southwest was indeed part of Mexico and was their land to begin with, way before the U.S. government, made of mainly European stock who displaced Native Americans in their continuing invasion of North America.
on February 2,2014 | 08:09AM
stingray65 wrote:
Brock: some folks does not know very much the American History..Thanks for educating them.. United States is land for opportunity!! Even Obama's Aunt that resides in Boston, took advantage of our systems..That what she said in front of TV..She said, do not blame me!! Blame your systems!! She live in low income housing, on welfare, with free medical like the rest of the undocumented folks came to this country.. Amen!
on February 2,2014 | 08:25AM
Grimbold wrote:
Now that we are a fully developed country and not a half empty land, all these new people are a drag on society. Because they come with nothing and overcrowd or roads, so for them we have to build wider roads, and that is not possible without tearing towns lots of houses, costing many times more than when a community is built at first.. They have no housing, so for them more land has to be concreted over. Our infrastructure has been paid for and was sufficient. Because of them is is not sufficient - and try to build larger sewage lines in a developed city! Who pays for it? Not them. So all the extra work is needed because of them and therefore we need more immigrants? Ha !
on February 2,2014 | 10:25AM
Grimbold wrote:
The inhabitants of that former part of Mexico have not been evicted, their descendants are still there and extremely happy they are not part of Mexico. All Mexican citizens would do much better if the USA would take over Mexico. Because the crime riddled Mexico would be diluted by the more law-abiding population and less corrupt officials of the USA, leading to a better life for all Mexicans except the criminals. Of course most US citizens would have to get used to a deterioration of live quality.
on February 2,2014 | 10:18AM
RetiredWorking wrote:
Grimbold, the early Native Americans probably asked themselves that, when European immigrants invaded America.
on February 2,2014 | 08:41AM
Ronin006 wrote:
We do not need immigration reform. What we need is enforcement of existing immigration laws.
on February 2,2014 | 08:59AM
Bdpapa wrote:
on February 2,2014 | 11:39AM
richierich wrote:
"It's really hard when you have to pay rent around $600, when you have car notes for $300 and $500," Angel said. --------- Sounds like someone priorities are a little out of wack.
on February 2,2014 | 09:46AM
LadyNinja wrote:
This country is in a mess. We should not take any more "immigrants" until we can take care of our own, natural born citizens! Obama's idea is mush! In Hawaii, many Micronesians invade our communities, apply for food stamps, get free housing, cause trouble, make trouble, don't work and are a poor example of US Citizens. All they want is a handout. Moreover, we have states that send their homeless here to gobble up our resources and strap the city/state blind. Help? Hell, the state can't even take care of their own, we have a Governor that wants to provide pre school education for "low income" families, give me a break, for what, so that these moochers can take away the freebies from our natural born keiki in Hawaii? Why? Why should we help? If we were in the same situation, you think that these "immigrants" would help. Obama and Abercrombie need to get out of office! enuff said.
on February 2,2014 | 11:07AM
scooters wrote:
Well, we do have an immigrant in the White House! Land of opportunity?
on February 2,2014 | 07:35PM
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