The Los Angeles Public Library offers six New Americans Centers as well as welcome stations at all 73 branches. (Photo by Madina Safdari)
Granada Hills Charter High School

The New Americans Initiative provides free citizenship help

Nestled in the heart of downtown Los Angeles sits Central Library, competing with the grandeur of banks and skyscrapers. Well established in comparison to other Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) branches, Central library serves as the hub for all services and resources imaginable.

“A lot of us, we go to the library to search for information, so I think it’s nice to know that the library provides additional services” Rita Orantes of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) said.

Since its inception in 1872, LAPL has grown to offer more than just book borrowing and a quiet place to study. Their free and extensive programs target community needs such as tutoring, financial guidance, veterans support, and recently an immigration and citizenship service.

Librarian Madeline Peña used the resources at the LAPL to pave her own path to citizenship. With the help of the library’s citizenship materials that preceded the new expanded program, she became naturalized in 2009.

“I checked out study materials, I studied all my civics questions. We all drive here in Los Angeles, so I used to put my CD in and listen to all the questions in both English and Spanish. Having those free resources really made things easy for me,” Peña said.

Peña said the LAPL has always aimed to serve their diverse communities.

With the launch of the New Americans Initiative (NAI) in January, the LAPL sought to support L.A.’s immigrant population with six New Americans Centers and welcome stations at all 73 branches. Their resources include, but are not limited to, second language resources, family services, “know your rights” cards, financial coaching, job opportunities and citizenship classes.

Los Angeles’ ever growing immigrant population frequents the LAPL to take advantage of their extensive services. Of the 8.5 million immigrants in the nation who are eligible to become naturalized, a quarter of them live in California, according to the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.

The LAPL was the first library system to partner with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service which initiated their path to citizenship program in 2012. In 2018 however, they launched an expanded program to help with English literacy and test preparation.

“I think that’s the best part of it — you can get reliable, trusted information at the library for free from library experts,” Peña said.

Orantes teaches citizenship courses at the Sun Valley Branch Library. On a recent Saturday students poured in, grabbing a seat where they could and dragged chairs from the stacks in the back to pull up and squeeze at a table.

Orantes emptied her folding cart and sat the cup of whiteboard markers next to a class set of blue English and civics practice workbooks titled “Voices of Freedom.”

The three hour long class had a packed agenda written on a large Post-It easel pad. They were to go over their homework from last week, review the branches of government, learn their senators names and make time for a ten minute break between it all.

After a few late-comers trickled in, Orantes began the class with a warm up of “dictations.” Students were instructed to write what they heard from sample sentences. She repeated the directions in Spanish.

“Washington is the father of our country,” Orantes vocalized.

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, she quickly wrote “Can you repeat, please?” In a speech bubble on the unmounted whiteboard and advised the class to use the phrase. Students scribbled through four more sentences, some glancing over at their seat partners’ papers while others mumbled words to themselves in an attempt to sound them out.

Orantes chose a student to come up to the board and share their answer. Walking up to the board apprehensively one of her classmates recited the sentence she was supposed to write, “American Indians were the first people to live in the United States.”

She began to write the sentence but paused and stepped back to exclaim, “es imposible.” After being coaxed by Orantes to try her best, she managed to finish the sentence. As soon as the cap was placed back on the marker the entire class erupted with applause.