San Diego’s Private Sector Leads In Naturalization Push Nationwide

September 14, 2016

KPBS News

By Jean Guerrero

San Diego businesses are leading nationwide private-sector efforts to help eligible immigrants become citizens, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum said Wednesday.

Ali Noorani said there are more than 50 San Diego businesses participating in the forum’s New American Workforce project, which aims to boost productivity and workplace bonds through integration.

“It builds a sense of community,” he said. “For the business community to take that step … is a tremendous boon to the economy, that business, but most importantly to that individual.”

Employees who naturalize often improve their English-language skills because they must pass a proficiency test, he said. They must also demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of U.S. history. The process of preparing for the citizenship application makes employees more informed citizens, Noorani said.

Noorani said naturalization is associated with an increase in economic wealth. In a recent study, the University of Southern California found that immigrants who have become naturalized earn an average of $40 more a day than immigrants who are not naturalized.

This year’s coming presidential election has led to increased demand for the project from people who are eager to vote, he added. San Diego is currently one of eight cities participating in the New American Workforce project. Noorani said more cities may soon join.

He was speaking at a meeting at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, where local business leaders who are participating in the project discussed their experiences with it.

“People immediately responded with joy,” said Elizabeth Duran, CEO of San Diego Theatres. “I had an employee say she jumped for joy about it. And answering those questions, having confidence, was infectious to the other folks in the company.”

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer called it a “win-win situation” at the meeting.

“We are a city that embraces diversity,” he said. “And when our businesses are engaged in this process, the result is a stronger community.”

About 200,000 of the 8 million immigrants eligible for citizenship nationwide are in San Diego. In San Diego, 665 immigrants have been naturalized through the program since it started in 2013. Nationally, the number of immigrants who gained citizenship through the program is 5,100.

Paola Avila, vice president of international affairs for the chamber of commerce, said the project still faces big obstacles, such as the fact that China does not recognize dual citizenship. She said this makes Chinese residents of San Diego reluctant to naturalize.

An employee participant of the New American Workforce, Marina Alcala of Northgate Gonzalez Markets, said the program relieved her anxiety associated with having to reapply for her green card.

“I’m excited to now have more opportunities for myself and my family,” she said.