More than 150 immigrants from 27 countries swore allegiance to the United States at a ceremony in Miami on Friday, one of dozens of similar naturalization events that will mark Presidents’ Day throughout the nation.
Nearly 20,000 immigrants will become citizens during these ceremonies.
The largest national contingent in the Miami ceremony, 51 people, was made up of Cuban immigrants — and one of them, Roberto Pérez, was selected to recite the pledge of allegiance, which he did from memory.
Once the ceremony ended, many of the 152 new citizens rushed to a Miami-Dade elections table outside the auditorium where they immediately registered to cast their first ballot in the 2016 presidential election.
The ceremony came just one day after local officials, community leaders and immigrant rights advocates unveiled a new citizenship drive during a news conference at Miami International Airport.
Dubbed Citizenship 1-2-3, the drive was announced by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez, along with Miami-Dade aviation department chief Emilio González, a Cuban immigrant who under President George W. Bush headed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Campaigns to promote citizenship take place frequently, particularly during presidential election years.
Citizenship 1-2-3 leaders said their campaign is unprecedented because it is backed by a bipartisan group and also because it is being promoted on digital platforms, a website — http://citizenship123.org/ and http://ciudadania123.org/ — and a telephone hotline: 877-412-3123.
Organizers say campaigns are necessary to promote naturalization because millions of legal permanent residents annually choose not to sign up for citizenship.
A recent Homeland Security report on naturalization showed that there are at least 13.1 million permanent residents in the country and that 8.8 million of those are eligible to request citizenship. Randolph McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services, said that at least 415,000 legal permanent residents in Miami-Dade County are eligible for citizenship.
At Friday’s naturalization ceremony in Miami, all of the new citizens interviewed had not waited long to apply for citizenship. Most had been permanent residents for the required five years, by the time they filed their applications.
For example, Pérez — the Cuban immigrant who led the pledge of allegiance — arrived five years ago and as of Friday is a citizen.
Pérez, 33, was born blind, but today he is a computer expert who has managed to accomplish many of his goals in life. Becoming a citizen was one of them.
Asked how he felt about becoming a citizen, Pérez replied: “It’s an accomplishment. I came to this country five years ago, knowing little English, with a great desire to become part of the society, to integrate myself, to work.”
In Cuba, Pérez attended special schools because of his blindness. Eventually, Pérez became a computer science engineer and immigrated to the United States on a visa issued after his sister here claimed him.
Now, Pérez is working for the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind where he serves as an assistive technology instructor, he said.
Reach Alfonso Chardy on Twitter: @AlfonsoChardy