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."