IRC addresses barriers to naturalization in local Latino immigrant community
By Lena Smith
LOS ANGELES — The Eagle Rock branch of the Los Angeles Public Library is the new training ground for 34 aspiring American citizens through the International Rescue Committee’s developing outreach to local Spanish-speaking immigrants.
As a national partner with the New Americans Campaign, the IRC is mobilizing eligible legal permanent residents to realize their goal of citizenship and full civic engagement. Under the banner “United for Citizenship,” the New Americans Campaign seeks to make citizenship more accessible to immigrants.
Citizenship is the “final step” of an often arduous process for immigrants who want to realize their full potential and freedom in the United States, according to IRC Immigration Outreach Specialist Angineh Torosiyan.
“You could have lived here for 40 years with a green card, but if you don’t take that plunge to naturalize and become a naturalized US citizen, you can never vote,” she said. “You don’t have the same freedoms as a full fledged American does.”
The IRC’s free 10-week citizenship program provides immigrants with the information needed to complete the naturalization process. In addition to an understanding of application guidelines and requirements, English language and civics instruction prepares immigrants for the citizenship interview and examination process. Classes are held each Saturday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Eagle Rock library branch.
Nearly 3.5 million immigrants reside in Los Angeles, constituting 35 percent of the county’s population, according to a 2012 report published by the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
While the Latino immigrant community has continued to grow, a widespread understanding of the naturalization process has not. According to Torosiyan, misinformation and exploitation are two of the most prominent barriers the Latino immigrant population faces on the road to naturalization.
People with no legal qualifications, often called “notarios,” exploit the eagerness of aspiring citizens for their economic advantage. Notarios advertise their services with the support of false claims and credentials. Immigrants who remain ignorant of the naturalization process buy into these claims and pay a high price for assistance with the citizenship application. In the end, notarios may not even submit their applications. If they do, fraudulent or incorrect information included on the application can lead to deportation.
In such a large immigrant population, false information and miscommunication leads to widespread confusion and, at times, skepticism within the community. Torosiyan said that the IRC “demystifies” the citizenship process.
Lilian Ibarra, an immigrant from El Salvador and participant in the IRC’s Spanish citizenship class, is taking her first steps toward citizenship at the age of 72. Ibarra decided to attend the citizenship classes after hearing of the IRC’s services from a local Spanish television network.
After living in Los Angeles for over four decades, Ibarra is looking to the IRC for assistance in understanding the citizenship process.
For Ibarra and other immigrants, attending classes at the local library during the weekend provides easy access to citizenship resources.
“We’re primarily catering to people that are working during the week,” IRC Spanish Citizenship Instructor Paxcely Marquez said.
According to Marquez, Saturday afternoon class sessions accommodate most class participants, even those who work on Saturday mornings.
The local library is also a key point of introduction for immigrants to their new communities. According to Cheryl Collins, the Director of Branch Library Services for the Los Angeles Public Library, immigrant families often become even more involved with programs as their children use library resources.
The Los Angeles Public Library is part of a greater partnership with the City of Los Angeles and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to encourage immigrant integration and naturalization in Los Angeles.
In addition to hosting citizenship classes, library branches have established “citizenship corners” to provide immigrants with application information, educational resources and contact information to organizations that can assist them in the citizenship process.
The IRC plans to expand their outreach according to the needs of the community by mobilizing resources through additional programs.