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First Immigration Office in Southwest Florida Opens in Fort Myers

Matthew F. Smith, WGCU
Maria Alvarez, right, and her mother Estrella (center), moments after Maria became a U.S. citizen.

The first immigration office in Southwest Florida formally marked its opening Friday in Fort Myers, with a ceremony that swore 20 residents in as US citizens.

After dedicating the new office to Medal of Honor recipient and Canadian immigrant Sgt. Andrew MacGillivary, the new Fort Myers immigration office marked the formal opening with a ceremony. Twenty people living in Southwest Florida, but originally  from Russia, Serbia, Haiti, Cuba, and beyond, officially became U.S. citizens.

“I was waiting, to become a citizen, and now, it becomes true,” said Maria Alvarez, a Cuban immigrant who lived for years in Miami before moving to Punta Gorda.

Like the other candidates at Friday's ceremony, she went through her naturalization interview—an English exam, a history test, and background check—before being sworn in. At her side during the ceremony was her ten-year-old son Robert. Her own mother, Estrella, choked back tears.

“Right now, I feel good. Excited, and happy. Not only me but my family, too, that they are here with me," she said. 

Her mother Estrella burst forth in emotional Spanish. "Estoy muy feliz, te para que también," she said, her daughter laughing joyfully.

The director of the new field office, Shelly Randall, said the office is more than a decade overdue, but construction only started in December 2015. Officials noted the volume of naturalization applicatns with Southwest Florida zip codes, a volume that eventually reached the point that a new office was funded to serve the region. Since September the office has been helping applications file forms and track applications.

Candidates have come from nearby, like Collier and Charlotte counties, and from further afield, like Glades and Okeechobee Counties.

“They don’t have to drive the two hours up to Tampa, they don’t have to drive south to Oakland Park [in Miami]," Randall said. "We’re here, we can support them, it’s good for them and it’s good for us.”

The new office will help residents file applications and schedule their own naturalization interview. Randall said she expects about 100 people every day.

Matthew Smith is a reporter and producer of WGCU’s Gulf Coast Live.