One of the secrets to Miami’s magic is its vibrant population of thriving immigrants. They are found in this community’s halls of power, classrooms and radio airwaves. With 53 percent of Miami-Dade County’s residents being foreign born, it is easy to see why Mayor Carlos Gimenez and the members of the County Commission joined Cities for Citizenship, a national movement, and became the first county to create the Office of New Americans (ONA) in 2015.
Four years later, it is clear that local officials and advocates understood that immigrant residents need guidance navigating the ever-changing path to citizenship.
From Miami’s earliest Bahamian settlers of 1790, to the first wave of Cuban exiles in the 1950s, in addition to each successive wave of immigration, Miami has become more lively, nimble and resilient. This is evident when we look at our entrepreneurial and small-business community, the heartbeat of our economy.
Almost 20 percent of entrepreneurs in Miami are immigrants. This is why ONA has partnered with the Cambridge Innovation Center Miami (CIC Miami) to launch Immigrant Powered, a nonpartisan, grassroots and inclusive initiative. The mission is threefold: to highlight the positive economic impact of immigrants in our communities; empower immigrant-powered businesses; and to connect small and medium businesses with opportunities for education around responsible immigration policy. We want to support and highlight immigrant-owned businesses, locally.
The Office of New Americans of Miami-Dade, nicknamed ONA, has helped more than 10,000 residents become U.S. citizens through its free naturalization clinics, citizenship classes and information sessions. With more than 400,000 legal permanent residents in Miami-Dade County eligible for citizenship, more resources need to be allocated to help them take the final step in making Miami, and the United States, home.
Financial barriers often are the largest obstacles to the American Dream, with application fees now at $725, in addition to legal fees. We have partnered with Catalyst Miami and Hispanic Unity of Florida to offer access to financial coaching and interest-free micro loans through Catalyst Miami’s Citizenship Lending Circles.
The second barrier is fear. Many are still traumatized or intimidated by their last interaction with the immigration system. In response, we have free weekly citizenship classes at local libraries, where we make the interview process less intimidating by preparing applicants for the test in U.S. civics and history, providing a welcoming place to practice their English and conducting mock interviews. We are combating misinformation and myths through our Information and Know Your Rights sessions throughout the year with qualified pro-bono attorneys.
Miami is a multilingual, multiracial, multicultural hub that represents all that is great about our country. This Citizenship Week, which runs through Sept. 22, we ask members of the community to reflect on the contributions of immigrants in their lives. As the proud daughter of naturalized Haitian immigrants, who was raised in New York, Port-au-Prince and Miami, I know that my story would not be possible anywhere else. Reflecting on my Miami story, my experiences in the United States and abroad have shaped my passion for people, especially for those trying to build community in their new home.
Join us by celebrating Miami Citizenship Week, grab a cortadito at 3:05 at your local ventanita. Take an African dance class at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. Visit the Thai temple in Homestead to meditate with the monks. Go to one of the remaining fabric stores downtown. Go to officeofnewamericans.org for more information.
Krystina Francois is executive director of Miami-Dade County’s Office of New Americans.