If you can, become a U.S. citizen soonest

Citizenship ceremonies like this one in December are held often in South Florida, where 40 percent of the residents are foreign-born.
Citizenship ceremonies like this one in December are held often in South Florida, where 40 percent of the residents are foreign-born. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Every single day, from my vantage point as director of Miami International Airport, I see the excitement on people’s faces as they arrive in the United States on vacation, to visit family and friends, to do business. The most excited faces are of those who have chosen to make their lives here and to contribute their talents to our community.

Florida isn’t just a tourist mecca; it’s a destination for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have made it their permanent home. South Florida in particular is largely made up of immigrants and the children of immigrants from all over the world.

Almost 40 percent of South Florida residents are foreign-born, according to recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That diversity has made our community vibrant and a hub of innovation.

Within that vibrant community are an estimated 415,000 lawful permanent residents, or “green-card holders,” currently eligible to become U.S. citizens. Despite their obvious commitment to our country and community, despite their enthusiasm for life here and the many, many cultural, economic, business, scientific and other contributions they make to a place they call “home,” only a very small percentage of those eligible will become citizens this year.

Why is this a problem? Because it’s a lost opportunity, both for the country and for the would-be citizen.

Those who choose to live permanently in the United States don’t need to be convinced of the enormous opportunities this country presents. But those opportunities are greater still for those who become citizens.

When I was director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), I was keenly aware of this lost opportunity of not having these dedicated and committed residents as full participants in civic life in our country. And my personal experience as an exile from Cuba and naturalized citizen has made my desire for others to become citizens more intense still. I am grateful for the opportunities being a U.S. citizen has given me.

Citizenship brings with it a wealth of privileges and protections — the right to vote, the right to travel on a U.S. passport, the right to bring family members to live legally in the country — and greater access to jobs. Citizenship also brings with it a renewed sense of belonging and a commitment to the community. Citizenship benefits the community at least as much as the new citizen.

We know that the vast majority of green card holders want to become citizens, but that they just don’t know how. Some think it is just too difficult and that even if they got help, it would be too expensive. Neither of those is true.

The process is much easier than many think it is and, for those who want help, it is available and in many cases it’s free.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, himself a naturalized U.S. citizen, has long championed this cause, most recently with the opening of an Office for New Americans that ensures that eligible county residents have the resources they need to become citizens.

The opportunity to become a citizen has always been one of our country’s defining values. And there is no better time to seize it.

Emilio T. González is Aviation Director of Miami International Airport.