ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There are employers in seven cities, including Washington, Los Angeles, Houston and San Diego, that have signed on to help their workers become U.S. citizens. NPR's Richard Gonzales has this story about a program which focuses on immigrants who are in the country legally.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: 36-year-old Anna Leon has been a legal resident for most of her life. But she never tried to become a citizen because she thought the process was too hard and too expensive - a long application, a civics lesson, $2000 for an attorney. But now she's changed her mind.
ANNA LEON: Because I'd like to be able to be part of my community.
GONZALES: What does that mean for you?
LEON: That means I'd like to be part of my family. My family is everything, born here. And I'd like to be part of my family completely, like, participate in my community, vote, everything.
GONZALES: Leon will finally grab her opportunity to become a citizen thanks to her employer, Hunter Industries, makers of landscape irrigation products in San Marcos, California. Hunter opened its doors to an innovative program called The New American Workforce that provides citizenship services at virtually no cost to the company or its employees. President and CEO Greg Hunter says it was a no-brainer.
GREG HUNTER: As an employer, it's valuable to us because it's something we can help our employees do to grow and, you know, to develop.
GONZALES: Hunter even sweetens the deal for his employees. He reimburses his workers for half of the $680 application fee and then let's them pay off the other half through a payroll deduction. It's not a lot of money, says Hunter, and what he gets back is a stable workforce.
HUNTER: There's value to me philosophically as a patriotic American - that it was a country built on immigration to, you know, maintain that.
GONZALES: Hunter is one of about 100 companies in seven cities that have joined the New American Workforce. It's a project of the D.C.-based National Immigration Forum, and it's based on an example from 100 years ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSREEL FOOTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The steel plant of today is usually a self-contained unit.
GONZALES: Newsreel footage celebrates the role of Bethlehem Steel in making the United States an industrial powerhouse. Back in 1915, Bethlehem Steel was one of the first American companies to offer free English classes to its diverse immigrant workforce - Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles. Jennie Murray directs the New American Workforce project.
JENNIE MURRAY: So 100 years later, we've used that inspiration to think about what employers could be doing at the worksite to assist their immigrant employees into better integration into the worksite, into the culture and into our country.
GONZALES: But there are still barriers to becoming a citizen such as the application fee, a lack of confidence speaking English or lingering ties to the home country. On the other hand, naturalized citizens tend to make more money than noncitizens, says Murray. And what the employer gets in return is a dedicated and loyal employee.
The benefits of citizenship go beyond the workplace. Research shows that naturalized citizens become more involved in their communities, says USC sociologist Manuel Pastor.
MANUEL PASTOR: And so when people become citizens, their possibilities for civic engagement - not just voting, but participating in City Council meetings, going to the school board meetings, participating in the PTA - all of those things go up.
GONZALES: The New American Workforce project has talked to over 98,000 employees and their family members nationwide. But only a small fraction, or about 2,500, have actually applied over the past two years. But organizers aren't deterred. They say as more employers sign on, more employees will take the step to becoming an American citizen. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.