Helping patrons to fill out immigration paperwork is an increasingly important need for the community in Hartford, CT. The Hartford Public Library (HPL) is just across the street from the United States Citizenship and Immigration services office, making HPL a common destination for immigrants who need computer access to bring up information and fill out online forms—access they often don’t have at home. To ensure that HPL staff can serve the needs of this community, HPL has become the first public library in America to have staff members accredited by the Bureau of Immigrant Appeals (BIA), so they can assist immigrants with the often confusing paperwork and online forms they need to fill out to get on—and stay on—the path to permanent U.S. citizenship.
While the groundbreaking program is a step beyond the services most libraries offer, HPL’s multicultural services director Homa Naficy sees the new initiative as in sync with the core mission of libraries everywhere—to help people access information. When she started her career as a librarian in Newark in 1991, people would come to Naficy’s reference desk asking how many chromosomes are in a radish or where the little fork goes in a place setting. With that sort of information now easily available on the Internet, the nature of the research support librarians provide has changed—and libraries have to change with it to stay relevant. “We work for the community, and the community needs this service,” Naficy said.
That need has become so regular at HPL, said Maryanne Daly-Doran, the part time Citizenship Project Coordinator at HPL and one of it’s two current BIA accredited representatives, that the library has little choice but to evolve to meet it. Fortunately, HPL has a history of successfully evolving to meet community needs, as witnessed by its Distinguished 2002 National Award for Library Service and being selected as a finalist for LJ’s own LibraryAware Community Award 2013
Thanks to its proximity to Connecticut’s only United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) office, HPL sees immigrants from all over the state. They come with a wide variety of needs, from updating and renewing visas to getting permission to travel back to their home countries. Since much of the paperwork required by the USCIS is now housed online, HPL is the best way for immigrants who don’t have Internet access at home to find the forms they need.
Many immigrants need more than just access to online forms, though. They need assistance navigating the process. Getting a passport stamp that lets an immigrant travel back home without endangering their chances at getting legal citizenship, for example, is a common need for library patrons. It’s also one that requires more work than you might think—and often more complex navigation than some immigrants can do on their own. ”To submit the application, you need credit or debit card with a certain amount of money free on it and an email address,” Daly-Doran said. “We may have to get them a debit card. We may have to help them get an email address.” Considering that many of those seeking help are under stress or grieving the loss of a loved one, providing that assistance is not always an easy task.
Complicating the situation is that, legally speaking, folks without training in immigration law aren’t supposed to offer such assistance, though the line between helping someone operate a browser and helping them fill out important paperwork can become murky, especially in a busy library that helps to serve a significant immigrant population. “It’s really easy to practice law without intending to. Once a person tells someone this that and the other thing about immigration forms, that person is practicing law,” said Rafael Pichardo, a lawyer who was recently recruited by HPL as a part-time Immigration Legal Services Manager to provide legal assistance to immigrants seeking aid. “Getting BIA accreditation for the staff provides the legal authority to do it and legitimizes the institution.”
Among library staffers who see the demand for this kind of assistance daily, there’s a sense of relief that trained help will be on-hand at HPL. After all, said Naficy, “for a librarian, there’s nothing worse than being behind a service desk and not being able to help someone.”
Or even worse, giving them incorrect information, an all-too common pitfall in legal services for immigrants, said Pichardo. And since immigrants who get poor or incorrect advice can often find themselves deported, they have little recourse if they’re given poor advice, the bills for which can run into the thousands. The HPL is a natural place for immigrants to turn for assistance with these issues, as the library already provides services that the community is familiar with through its The American Place (TAP) program, first started in 2000, which offers free English and citizenship classes, resources for studying at home, and assistance with accessing online immigration information, as well as recruiting and training volunteer Cultural Navigators to offer mentoring and tutoring support to new arrivals.. “The library is already a trusted place,” says Pichardo.
While HPL now has a part-time lawyer and two BIA accredited staffers including Daly-Doran, on hand to provide information, the program is still in its infancy. Over the next year, Naficy and her colleagues will be working to offer what services they can while the program takes shape. More are getting ready to participate in the 40-hour long training program. Naficy, meanwhile, is looking for ways to ensure that the program can be sustainably funded going forward, from applying for grants from organizations like USCIS to charging a nominal fee for more complicated legal advice, while keeping simpler consultations with BIA accredited staffers a free service. She’s also looking at partnerships that could help to defray costs, such as bringing in volunteers from the University of Connecticut law school to assist patrons with immigrations challenges.
That’s one of many issues Naficy and her staff will be facing as the program takes shape in the coming months. And since immigration issues aren’t limited to Hartford, she’s aware that some eyes will be on the program, examining how the new model works at HPL. “This isn’t going to be one size fits all model,” said Naficy. “But the need is there, and this could be a good fit for a lot of libraries.”