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'I dreamed of becoming a citizen, and the library made my dream come true'

'I dreamed of becoming a citizen, and the library made my dream come true'
Left to right: Francisca, Bryan and Sergio Sanchez and Los Angeles Public Library city librarian John F. Szabo (Credit: Gary Leonard, photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

Four years ago, when Sergio Sanchez was ready to become a United States citizen, he wasn't sure where to begin.

Sanchez, who had moved to the U.S. from the Mexican city of Veracruz in 1991, was sure about one thing, though: The Los Angeles Public Library was a great place to go for answers. He frequently took his young son for homework help at the library's Wilshire Branch, located near Sanchez's home in Mid-City. It was there that he discovered books to study English and U.S. history, news publications to keep himself informed, and a wealth of other resources he could use to educate and enlighten himself.

He became a library regular. When he was there one afternoon in 2014, Sanchez noticed a sign offering help with citizenship. He talked to a librarian, who introduced Sanchez to the library's many naturalization resources, including classes and materials that he could use on his own at the library and at home. Sanchez and his wife, Francisca, started in on the rigorous process right away.

A year later, in 2015, both Sergio and Francisca became U.S. citizens. They credit the library with helping them achieve that goal.

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"I dreamed of becoming a citizen, and the library made my dream come true," Sanchez said.

His son, Bryan, whose need of homework help had brought the family to the library in the first place, graduated from college last year.

A full-service gateway to citizenship

Today's Los Angeles Public Library offers so much more than just access to great books and media. Its New Americans Initiative — just one of an array of programs aimed at serving everyone across L.A.'s famously diverse communities — provides a full-service gateway to U.S. citizenship for the region's 700,000 permanent residents, plus free and easily accessible immigration and naturalization resources.

"It's something that is rooted in who we are as a profession and what we are as an institution," said city librarian John F. Szabo, who oversees the city's 73 libraries. "Public libraries have been doing important, substantive, impactful work in the area of helping immigrants and helping people on their path to citizenship for decades."

The roots of the New Americans Initiative reach back to 2012, when the Los Angeles Public Library became the nation's first such institution to partner with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to make the city's libraries trusted, welcoming places for immigrants to obtain the information they need.

"The New Americans Initiative boldly moves beyond our initial groundbreaking work," Szabo said. "Every one of our libraries features a New Americans Welcome Station and we have recently opened six New Americans Centers that provide access to professional, qualified experts in citizenship and immigrant rights who offer assistance."

Launched in January, New Americans Centers were established at the Central Library downtown and in five local branch libraries: Benjamin Franklin in Boyle Heights, Junipero Serra in South Park, Pacoima, Pio Pico-Koreatown, and Wilmington. New Americans Welcome Stations, which offer USCIS literature, "Know Your Rights" information and more, are in all 72 branches.

New Americans Center services include assistance with N-400 naturalization application forms, green card renewals, citizenship exam preparation and fee waiver completions. Workshops, classes or one-on-one support are also offered in financial literacy, tenant rights, guardianship and small business management.

Access to legal help

The library is working with nonprofit organizations Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), and the International Rescue Committee to provide access to immigration attorneys and experts who can offer more individualized immigration advice and, in some cases, representation.

"In part, this is intended to counter notario fraud in L.A. — paid legal advice from self-styled 'notario' immigration consultants, who may not have U.S. Department of Justice training or accreditation," said New Americans Initiative managing librarian Madeleine Ildefonso.

"Libraries are a trusted community resource — a place the community looks to for information and honest advice," said Daniel Sharp, legal director of CARECEN, which was founded in the 1980s to assist refugees. "Becoming a New Americans partner made a lot of sense for us, and it helps us bring our work to more communities. As part of the New Americans Initiative…we're protecting the immigrant community from scams, from fraud, from the unauthorized practice of immigration law that can have really devastating consequences."

Appointments can be scheduled through the library and are language-specific. Services are provided in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Farsi and many other languages.

"Los Angeles Public Library is a critical, valuable, trusted institution in every neighborhood of this city," Szabo said. "The New Americans Initiative is an incredibly important part of that."

—Paul Rogers for Los Angeles Public Library