The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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State, national news

February 2, 2014

Immigrant reform might raise price of citizenship

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.

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