Reth Hem , a housekeeper at the Grand Hyatt Washington for nearly 27 years, has always dreamed of becoming a citizen .
Her dream was an elusive one. Between working long hours to support herself and her family, having little outside help and the prohibitive cost of the process — upward of $2,000 — she kept putting it off.
Until this year, when starting the process to become a citizen became as easy as showing up to work. Now Hem and 29 other Grand Hyatt employees are taking the next step.
This is thanks to the Bethlehem Project, an innovative partnership that provides citizenship assistance to eligible employees at the work site. After attending a two-hour information session and receiving one-on-one help with the application, Hem is preparing for the exam and awaiting a notice from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with her test date. If she passes, she will be given an oath ceremony date and will become a U.S. citizen.
The project is named after Bethlehem Steel, which in 1915 became one of the first U.S. companies to offer English classes to its immigrant employees. Since the Bethlehem Project’s launch in Miami in January 2013, it has grown quickly, with sites in the District, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Jose and San Diego — and new cities on the horizon. More than 81,000 employees from 80 businesses have been educated about the process and more than 1,800 have applied for citizenship.
The Bethlehem Project benefits not only employees who are eligible for citizenship but also the businesses and local groups that serve immigrants seeking citizenship. Employees such as Hem are essential to businesses like Grand Hyatt — whose 530 employees clean rooms, cook meals, manage others, staff events and do everything in between.
That’s one reason businesses want to support employees who have green cards. At Grand Hyatt, that support extends beyond free citizenship application assistance to include paid leave for employees to attend information sessions. We also invite relatives of eligible employees to attend the workshops.
We see our employees’ promise and understand that, as a nation of immigrants, their success will be our businesses’ and our country’s success.
For Washington, the economic benefits are tremendous. On average, new citizens stand to earn 8 percent to 11 percent more than green-card holders over their lifetimes. That’s important for employees such as Hem — and when multiplied by the 280,000 eligible green-card holders in the District, the economic benefits are in the millions.
Hem is clear on the benefits to her and others like her: “I appreciate the opportunity to make my life better. Becoming a citizen is good for me; it’s easier to travel and I can vote.”
Here in the nation’s capital, we owe so much to immigrants, starting with Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed our city. Years from now, we will similarly owe a debt to the legal permanent residents whose intrepid spirit and daily work drive innovation and growth.
In the midst of an unprecedented situation on the border and a heated national debate on immigration reform, hundreds of thousands of legal permanent residents in the D.C. area face a different, more personal challenge — becoming citizens .
The least we can do is help them fully achieve their American dream.
The writer is the general manager of Grand Hyatt Washington.