A citizenship ceremony at a Navy base on Sicily. Navy photo
A citizenship ceremony at a Navy base on Sicily. Navy photo

San Diego’s business and political communities came together Wednesday to promote citizenship for more than 200,000 eligible immigrants through the New American Workforce program.

“We’re here to help businesses assist their immigrant employees obtain their American citizenship,” said Mayor Kevin Faluconer. “We are a city that embraces diversity.”

Faulconer opened a roundtable discussion at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce about the business benefits of helping legal residents obtain citizenship.

Nationally there are 8.8 million immigrants eligible for citizenship, with San Diego ranked seventh among U.S. cities in total number with an estimated 204,000.

The idea behind the New American Workforce program dates back to 1915, when Bethlehem Steel began giving its immigrant workers English-language instruction. It’s a program of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit.

Elizabeth Doran, CEO of San Diego Theatres, said employees who have legal residency but not citizenship are often concerned about the future for themselves and their families. “They can be confused and nervous, and that can lead to reduction in productivity,” she said.

But once they learn how to become citizens, it opens up opportunities, sometimes spanning generations, said Doran, who recalled her own family’s path to citizenship. “The United States citizenship moment is very powerful in a family,” she said.

Namara Mercer, executive director of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association, said 22 hotels are participating in the program and she expects more to become involved.

The roundtable also included workers who benefit from the program, including Marina Alcala, the human resources manager at family-owned Northgate Markets.

“Participating in New American Workforce allowed me to have security because I didn’t have to keep reapplying for my green card,” Alcala said. “I’m excited to now have more opportunities for myself and for my family.”

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said 54 San Diego businesses — the most of any city — are participating in the program.  We have yet to find a business that has said at the end of the day…we don’t want a part of this,” he said.

He said the contentious national politics around immigration actually help by raising awareness of the issues and inspiring business and individuals to get involved.

“The politics of the day work to our benefit,” he said. “At their core, Americans care about immigrants.”

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.