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APPLICANTS RACE CLOCK

One hurdle to citizenship gets higher as fees rise dramatically Monday.

Gabriel Granados-Jimenez cannot afford to become an American.

He's trying anyway.

The 30-year-old Pasco County resident and Mexican native said he borrowed $1,765 from his boss - more than Granados-Jimenez makes in a month - to cover the costs of U.S. citizenship.

He said he had no choice.

Starting Monday, those who want to become citizens - or just live here legally - will have to pay hundreds of dollars more for the right to do so.

It'll cost $275 more to become a naturalized citizen and $940 more for a green card.

That's why many immigrants have spent the summer scrambling to become Americans.

The government announced the fee increase in January to pay for processing the burgeoning requests of those who want to live and work here.

But with attitudes hardening against immigrants, advocates see higher fees as another roadblock to citizenship.

"The No. 1 barrier to applying for citizenship is fees," said Javier Angulo of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

- - -

Want to become an American? It costs $400 - but not for much longer.

To become a U.S. citizen at that price, all of the paperwork has to be postmarked by Sunday (the only post office open that day is at Tampa International Airport).

On Monday it'll cost $675.

Immigrants will soon pay the true costs of processing their applications, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Ana Santiago. The agency made the change after a year of study.

"This agency doesn't get appropriations from Congress," she said. "So the person asking for the immigration benefit has to be the one to bear the cost.

"We're losing money. We're in the red every day. By law we have to be solvent."

The money will also streamline the immigration process, Santiago said, with years of paper applications still waiting.

Some, though, see higher fees as a barrier to citizenship.

"What happens if people can't afford it?" said Angulo, director of civic education for his organization. "The fact is there are a lot of people who cannot pay the current fee."

- - -

Carolina Trejo could just barely afford it.

"I did wait for the very last second," the Tampa resident said Wednesday. "I had to go through a lot to be able to get the money for the forms I'm sending today."

A native of El Salvador, she said she has spent 19 of her 31 years in this country. She said she needed all the time she could spare just to pay the old fees.

"I have a lot of friends," she said. "They've been doing whatever it takes to get the money."

Granados-Jimenez got his first passport to the United States at age 4. He's lived in Pasco County since he was 19. Newly married to a U.S. citizen, a father of two, the laborer said he lives on just $1,400 a month.

He said he already put up $1,000 to pay his lawyer $2,500 (not including immigration fees) and paid $130 for a physical.

They are not alone in the rush for citizenship. In a 12-county area including Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas, 489 more applied this June than the previous June.

Nationwide, the U.S. government received 71,288 requests in June 2006.

This June, that number spiked to 135,302.

- - -

How can immigrants afford it all? That's what the his organization wanted to find out, Angulo said.

The answer in Houston is called Tanda. In New York, it's known as Sociedad.

Different names, but the same meaning: social networks. Immigrants banding together to pay for the price of citizenship.

To them, being an American is that important, said St. Petersburg lawyer Ellen Gorman:

"I'm always amazed how they're somehow able to come up with the fees."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS

Rising costs

Just being in this country legally will rise from $765 to $1,705 for an immigrant visa with a relative's petition and a work permit. Increases are across the board:

- Form I-290B, the petition to reconsider an immigrant's application, will go from $385 to $585.

- Form I-612, to waive foreign residency requirements, will rise from $265 to $545.

- Form I-526, the alien investor or entrepreneur petition, will jump from $480 to $1,435.

Up next:HIGH FIVES

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