By Susan Hildreth,
I was privileged to be a part of a ceremony at the Library of Congress in which 25 people took the Oath of Allegiance to become citizens of the United States of America. I joined Librarian of Congress Dr. James Billington, USCIS director Alejandro Mayorkas, and chief of staff of the District of Columbia Public Library Eva Poole, in an elegant room of the Thomas Jefferson Building in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol Building and the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was inspiring to hear the names of the petitioners and their far-flung home countries—Nepal, Ghana, Antigua and Barbuda—and to know that their new U.S. citizenship represents a commitment to the shared civic values that unite all Americans.
The event was one of several naturalization ceremonies hosted by libraries to celebrate National Library Week, and it served as the perfect forum to announce a new partnership between IMLS and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to encourage and recognize collaboration between citizen and immigration services and public libraries.
Director Mayorkas said, “We are hosting this ceremony at the Library of Congress because we are deeply, deeply proud to partner with libraries throughout the United States in furthering citizenship and promoting education in as easy a path to naturalization as can be afforded for those eligible for this extraordinary right and set of responsibilities.”
Having spent much of my career in California public libraries where serving new Americans became a priority in the 1980’s, I know that libraries have a long history of working with newcomers to this country. Public libraries are uniquely qualified for the task. As America’s great “equalizers,” libraries provide access to information and knowledge to anyone who seeks it. Libraries are often one of the first places immigrants visit as they settle in their new community, although newcomers to America are not always familiar with the many library services that are offered at no cost and are designed just for them.
Nonetheless, recent research shows that more than 55 percent of immigrants in the last 15 years use the public libraries once a week.
IMLS is committed to funding projects that serve immigrants and has supported initiatives in public libraries that benefit the immigrant community in a variety of ways:
- The Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) system, teamed with Liberty’s Promise, an innovative immigrant youth service organization, on an internship program that helps young immigrants develop employment skills and gives them the confidence to interact directly with the English-speaking public. This project received funding through our Laura Bush 21st Century Grant program.
- Every day, the Multnomah County Library is overflowing with programs that help immigrants overcome barriers and successfully adapt by offering citizenship classes, English conversation practice sessions, and a Spanish language version of the Multnomah County Library website. The library’s work was recognized by IMLS through a National Medal for Library Service.
- The Hartford Public Library’s “American Place” project provided library resources and services to help immigrants understand the naturalization process and start their journey toward U.S. citizenship. Components included: citizenship application workshop, onsite immigration counseling, and citizenship classes taught in English and Spanish. The project was funded through a National Leadership Grant for Libraries.
Through this collaboration with USCIS we hope to enhance the resources available in libraries throughout the country and strengthen the ability of librarians to guide new immigrants to the most accurate and current information available on immigration and citizenship. We believe this partnership is a critical step toward making knowledge about the immigration process readily available and accessible to immigrant communities throughout the country, easing the process for others to become fellow Americans.