San Jose International Airport first to offer citizenship services to immigrant employees

February 15, 2017

The Mercury News

By Tatiana Sanchez

Gustavo Rodriguez immigrated to the U.S from Mexico a decade ago in search of new adventures and opportunities. Today, the legal permanent resident oversees custodial services at Mineta San José International Airport and is raising his 1-year-old daughter in San Jose with his wife.

But when Rodriguez walked into work Wednesday, he found an even bigger opportunity at his fingertips: a path toward gaining U.S. citizenship.

San José International has become the first airport in the country to make it easier for its employees and their families to become citizens as part of a pioneering project with New American Workforce.

About 800 airport employees are potentially eligible to participate in the program, according to airport officials.

“It’s really important for me to become a citizen and to contribute not only to my job but with everything else, especially with my vote,” said Rodriguez. “I believe we all have opportunities, but not if we sit there and wait for them. We have to look for them. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible.”

More than half of the visa holders and legal residents that go through the naturalization process as part of the New American Workforce program have been eligible for citizenship for more than five years, according to Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which created the program. The city of San Jose joined the program last year, which means city employees also have access to the same resources. Seven other U.S. cities have joined the initiative so far: Los Angeles; New York City; Miami; Washington, D.C.; Houston; San Diego; and Detroit.

“It brings the dream of United States citizenship much closer to reality for people who are working hard every day, whether they are surveying passengers from around the world who are coming to San Jose or they are working every day to make their families and their businesses better,” he said.

The program makes citizenship assistance available at work sites — often during breaks or before and after work hours — by leading informational workshops and one-on-one sessions to help with the naturalization process. Accredited staff with the International Rescue Committee will lead the sessions. City officials and program leaders said they’re also looking for ways to ease the $725 citizenship application, which can be a significant barrier for many legal residents looking to naturalize.

The program comes at a time of great fear for visa-holders and other non-U.S. citizens in the country who fear deportation under the Trump Administration. Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested about 700 individuals last week in a series of raids across the country.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said the program is the greatest weapon the city has “against any political arrows that may be slung from Washington, D.C., in this era in which some attempt to use political means to divide new Americans from the rest of us.”

About 10 people attended a citizenship workshop at the airport Wednesday morning. Among them was Lualhati Marmito, a legal U.S. resident from the Philippines who screens passengers at airport security.

“This is the right time for me to process my citizenship in order for me to have a better future,” said the 36-year-old. “It’s time for me to move up.”