San Diego employers lead the way in new national citizenship push

September 14, 2016

The San Diego Union-Tribune

By Kate Morrissey

San Diego companies make up 54 of the 200 companies nationwide participating in New American Workforce, a program that provides resources through employers to help employees who hold green cards to become citizens.

According to the nonprofit National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C., which runs the program, that’s the most companies in any of the eight cities in which the program exists.

Executive Director Ali Noorani said San Diego’s hospitality industry has been especially involved. The other participating cities are Los Angeles, New York, San Jose, Miami, Washington, Houston and Detroit.

San Diego has more than 200,000 legal permanent residents who are eligible for citizenship, said Jerry Sanders, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. There are about 8 million nationwide, Noorani said.

“Studies have shown that these efforts to provide citizenship assistance at the workplace have multiple benefits for the businesses that do this,” Sanders said. “It helps with employee recruitment, it increases loyalty and retention and it creates an inclusive work culture. And it builds good will in the community.”

The chamber held a round-table discussion on Wednesday with Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the National Immigration Forum and San Diego business leaders to encourage even more participation from local companies.

Faulconer said he was strongly supportive.

“We are a city that embraces diversity in San Diego,” Faulconer said. “When you, our businesses, are engaged in this process, the result is a stronger community and a stronger economy. This is a win-win situation for San Diego.”

The San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association also supports the program. Namara Mercer, executive director of the association, said that 22 hotels have participated, and more are planning to in the future.

“In a hospitality situation, we can’t have a class system. Everybody has to be a team,” said Mike Staples, chairman of the board for the hotel-motel association. “The program has been an incredible esteem builder. The people that have gone through it, their pride, their esteem, their productivity is enhanced.”

In each of the eight participating cities, the National Immigration Forum partners with a local group, like Unitarian Universalist Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education, or UURISE, here in San Diego.

When a company first launches the program, the local group organizes information sessions and takes each participant through an assessment, said Katia Hansen, president and CEO.

The questions determine whether participants will be able to complete the process on their own, or might need additional legal support. Hansen said that if the person spent extensive time outside the U.S., either all at once or accumulated through many short trips, he or she might need the extra help. She said minor run-ins with law enforcement, even as a juvenile, can also be a complicating factor.

“Because naturalization is USCIS’s [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] last opportunity to look at a case, they go back and look at someone’s entire history, including all previously filed immigration documents and their entire criminal history, including juvenile records,” Hansen said.

Federal filing fees, totaling $680, can also be an obstacle. The citizenship application requires $595 application fee and an additional $85 for anyone under 75 years old as a biometric services fee.

Two of the businesses at the round table said they’d helped their employees with the fees. Staples, also general manager at Catamaran Resort Hotel, said the company paid half of the cost and allowed the rest to be deducted through payroll. The program has helped 24 of the resort’s employees to become citizens.

Elizabeth Doran, CEO of San Diego Theatres, said she used microloans to help her employees cover the fees.

San Diego Theatres signed on to the program this past summer, and Doran said so far seven employees have started the path to citizenship. Some, she said, have worked for the organization for 30 years. She said the program has also inspired U.S. citizens who work for the non-profit to get involved. Box office workers volunteered to help tutor for the naturalization test.

“People are happier and more productive,” Doran said. “I’d even say they’re healthier.”

The first San Diego company to participate, a janitorial company called Professional Maintenance Systems, got started with New American Workforce in early 2014, according to Kristi Walsh of the National Immigration Forum. The most recent addition, Viejas Enterprises, will launch its information sessions in October.