Immigrants who are interested in learning English and becoming citizens can now access information at libraries and recreation centers throughout Los Angeles under a new partnership between local and federal officials.
The goal of the program — the first in the nation — is to promote citizenship and strengthen integration through education, outreach and civic participation.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas announced the partnership Thursday during a citizenship class at Evans Community Adult School near downtown. The class, which began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the "Star-Spangled Banner," included students from 13 different countries.
"It's important that we integrate as many of our new Americans as possible so that you have a voice," Villaraigosa told the students while they snapped photos with their cellphones.
One of the students, Li Hua, from Taiwan, immigrated to the United States five years ago and hopes to take her civics test next year. She asked Mayorkas to explain more about U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but first she welcomed the speakers and said, "I have never been talking with so important people as you. You see, I'm shaking with nervousness."
Mayorkas applauded the students for learning English and applying for naturalization, and said he hoped many more would do the same as a result of the partnership between Los Angeles and Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"We are joining our resources together to pave as smooth a path as possible for those who seek that cherished dream," he said.
Villaraigosa and Mayorkas signed a letter of agreement in January pledging to work together to increase awareness of the naturalization process, and citizenship rights and responsibilities. Los Angeles plans to reach out to immigrants through information sessions and its local public access station. The mayor's office also plans to develop an outreach campaign, using the materials from the immigration agency, targeted at parents of public school students.
Immigration officials hope that with accurate information more readily available, immigrants will be less likely to seek guidance from notarios, unscrupulous attorneys who prey on illegal immigrants. In addition to the integration effort, Mayorkas said, he also plans to unveil an initiative soon to address the unauthorized practice of law and notario fraud and ensure that law enforcement takes the problems seriously.
Los Angeles was chosen for the citizenship outreach initiative in part because of its diversity — immigrants from 140 countries who speak more than 200 languages live within the city. Villaraigosa said he wanted the city to be the pilot site so more immigrants will become voters. In addition, he said, integration is key for the city's economy and workforce.
"If we don't train them in the English language, if we don't give them the skills they need to compete, then Los Angeles won't be competitive," he said.
Mayorkas said he and others would evaluate the program and consider replicating it in other cities across the nation.