For some employees of Baptist Health South Florida, the path to U.S. Citizenship started Tuesday.
The non-profit health organization partnered up with the National Immigration Forum to provide free on-site assistance to employees eligible to become American citizens. They held a special information session on Tuesday, which was National Citizenship Day.
“This is what this country is all about,” said Jose Soriano, 50, who was there to support his wife Dinorah. “It doesn't matter what color you are or what religion you practice. This is a great opportunity.”
To be eligible for citizenship, applicants must be 18 years or older and be a permanent resident for at least five years; three years if they’re married to an American.
Everyone must pay a $680 application fee but the cost of citizenship is often higher because most people pay thousands of dollars to lawyers to help them with the application, said Abby Chase a spokesperson for the program.
Officially known as The Bethlehem Project, the program is designed for people like Soriano, 52, who cannot afford legal fees and would otherwise not apply for citizenship.
Eligible Baptist Health employees only have to pay the $680 fee. They can work out a payment plan to have the money deducted from their pay check over time.
Baptist Health is one of the largest local companies participating in the program. Other participants include Miami Dade College, The Betsy hotel in South Beach, the InterContinental, and American Apparel. Three other cities are participating in The Bethlehem Project this year - Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and San Jose - but with half a million eligible immigrants living in South Florida, Miami is among the most active, Chase said.
For Soriano, this is an opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream.
She came to the United States from Cuba when she was 7 in the late 1960’s during the Freedom Flights. She was given a social security number, began working when she was a teenager and later got a driver’s license.
“I love this country,” she said. “I never cared to leave. To never be able to vote, it always hurt me.”
But after 9/11 her status was in limbo; although she had not come to the United States illegally, she did not have proper documents. Soriano, who’s children and grandchildren are American citizens, has never been able to vote.
When she saw the email regarding Tuesday's info session, she called her husband in tears.
"She's been wanting to do this for a long time," her husband said.