Businesses Help Employees Along the Road to Citizenship

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 06:  Pakistani immigrant Bilal Cheema, 23, listens during an English and U.S. citizenship class on Fe
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 06: Pakistani immigrant Bilal Cheema, 23, listens during an English and U.S. citizenship class on February 6, 2013 in New York City. The non-profit Council of Peoples Organization (COPO), holds the classes to help immigrants, mostly from Pakistan, learn English, assimilate to American culture and, in many cases, gain U.S. citizenship. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Immigration reform is the hot topic on Capitol Hill these days, but some businesses are ahead of the curve. In Miami, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., these trailblazers are helping their eligible employees become citizens and fully participate in our society.

Thanks to the Bethlehem Project, legal permanent residents who are key parts of our workforce are getting an assist as they pursue their dreams of becoming full-fledged Americans. The project is named after Bethlehem Steel, one of the nation's first employers to offer free English instruction to immigrants in its workforce.

Bethlehem Steel recognized in 1915 what we must continue to recognize today: We are a nation of immigrants. Successive generations have come to our country and integrated into society, embracing American freedom and opportunity through citizenship. Helping them do so reflects our commitment to the values that make America great.

Today 8.2 million legal permanent residents are eligible for citizenship, including more than 2.1 million in Miami and Los Angeles alone.

Aspiring Americans look forward to embracing our civic duty to vote and the opportunity to run for office. They already contribute to our workforce and economy, and citizenship encourages further investment in America. These opportunities, and the benefits our communities realize as a result, are what make America great.

Citizenship also helps families reunite and put down roots, which results in a multi-generational contribution to our society, economy and family structures.

But becoming a citizen isn't easy. Roadblocks include cost, a time-consuming application process and limited access to education resources.

An application for citizenship costs around $2,700 out of pocket for a combination of legal assistance fees and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services application fee. In addition, aspiring citizens must pass both verbal and written English tests and a verbal civics assessment test. Long work hours and limited preparatory class availability can serve as roadblocks.

This is where the Bethlehem Project comes in. A program of the National Immigration Forum and funded in large part by the New Americans Campaign, the Bethlehem Project works with employers to offer free citizenship services right at the work site.

The project partners with exceptional service providers at the local level, such as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the International Rescue Committee, to offer citizenship application legal services and English and civics training. And local business partners support their employees' pursuit of citizenship by providing meeting space and often paid leave time, opening the door for participants to submit applications and prepare for the interview process.

The Bethlehem Project is a winner not just for employees but for participating businesses. Without affecting an employer's bottom line, it encourages diversity in the workforce, creates an inclusive work culture that aids productivity and generates positive publicity to boot. It also helps foster employee recruitment, loyalty and retention, and generates goodwill amid a growing foreign-born consumer demographic in a competitive market.

No wonder it is taking off. With the leadership of Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón, President of Miami Dade College, and Manny Diaz, former Mayor of Miami and Senior Partner at Lydecker | Diaz, the project launched nationally from Miami with the support of three founding business partners: the InterContinental Miami, The Betsy South Beach and Miami Dade College. Just since this April launch, seven more Miami businesses have signed on.

Several businesses in Los Angeles have shown interest as well, following the lead of American Apparel, which launched the project this month. Two partnerships in Washington, D.C., have recently launched, and San Jose, Calif., will follow soon.

Helping new Americans earn citizenship will profoundly impact these cities and our nation. As the immigration debate continues to ramp up in Congress and our politicians consider a new road to citizenship for aspiring Americans, the Bethlehem Project is working to remove barriers and make citizenship a possibility for those who are already on their way.

When immigration reform does pass, the need for innovative integration services will only increase. The Bethlehem Project is an important model for encouraging aspiring citizens who, as they pursue the American dream, will contribute even more to our communities and our country.