Hartford Public Library, affectionately noted as “a place like no other,” lives up to its motto as one of the first library systems to offer immigration legal services.
“As part of the broad library services…it’s useful to have the programs in the library because [it creates a] connectedness which all immigrants need when they come into the country,” said Homa Naficy, chief adult learning officer. “It’s already in the fabric of our library.”
Based in Hartford, Connecticut, the library’s citizenship program was established in 2000 after the library received a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. The award allowed it to create a program for immigrants in response to an influx of refugees from Bosnia. Due to increasing demands from immigrants arriving within the last 20 years, the library’s program thrived and continued receiving funding.
After five years, the library director at the time decided to formalize the program. Naficy runs the immigration program, which centers, in part, on providing free citizenship classes. The library’s “big scope of service” includes assisting immigrants with needs such as finding housing or enrolling their children in school.
The organization faced a big turning point when it received more funding from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The local USCIS office was located next door to the library and many people would use the library’s computers to complete immigration applications.
The library staff found themselves in an awkward position, where they could have been considered to be practicing immigration law without authorization by helping immigrants with their forms. Some immigrants didn’t know how to type or where to find the website, for instance. However, with the grant USCIS provided, the library strengthened its citizenship program and later became recognized under a Department of Justice program for non-attorneys to offer such assistance.
Today, the Hartford Library focuses on community members who have been long-term residents. Not only does it provide citizenship mentoring, but librarians look for ways they can bring immigrants together to get to know each other. For instance, the library hosts events for World Refugee Day each June, where all communities share about their home countries and cultures.
“The libraries are here to serve the community,” said Naficy. “The immigrant community is right there, you know. They’re here all the time.”
The immigration program serves the third-largest West Indian community in the nation, with predominantly Jamaican patrons. The Latino community is the second largest, consisting of Peruvian, Colombian, Brazilian and Dominican immigrants.
Immigrants have, in a sense, become part of the library staff by holding classes at the library in their native languages for their children in an effort to maintain their cultures. Naficy recalled many Somali Bantu immigrants being adamant about their children not forgetting their language, and that the library was a part of their community by allowing these classes to take place.
However, for Naficy, the connection between the program and immigrants did not happen overnight. To her, the way to solidifying trust with immigrants is by building lasting relationships that one would not find on the internet or through the phone, especially as the potential for immigrants to be victims of fraud increases. It requires going out and meeting with ethnic-based organizations, gathering for events like breakfast or lunch, participating in newcomers’ cultural events or reaching out through popular newspapers and church bulletins.
Then, by Naficy’s standards, the library facilitates the greatest accomplishment—establishing a community through service and seeing someone become a citizen. The library, then, lives on as a platform that helps immigrants not only claim the United States as their own, but provides them the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
Chidinma Onuoha is a 2017 summer intern with CLINIC.