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Adult Literacy and Citizenship at Piscataway Public Library, New Jersey, USA

Thanks to an opportunity from our State Library called “Literacy Bootcamp,” several librarians across the state learned how to set up a literacy program in a public library.  A few years later, Piscataway Public Library’s program is going strong.

Serving our immigrant population with English as a Second Language (ESL) classes five days per week, our literacy program includes English classes for beginners, intermediate conversation groups, basic writing, and citizenship.

Students come from all over the world including China, Turkey, Central and South America, and many other areas.  They learn the vocabulary necessary for everyday life such as how to talk to their child’s teacher, how to ask their doctor questions, and so on.

Our volunteer ESL teachers are from all walks of life, ranging from millennials to retired teachers and clergy.  Their enthusiasm and commitment to helping others is remarkable.

english class for non-native speakers

In our citizenship classes, students learn about American history and government, and prepare to take the citizenship exam.  We work closely with USCIS officers to ensure that our students receive the information they need.  An officer visits the citizenship class each semester to answer questions about the naturalization process.

One of our favorite classes was a field trip to an art museum.  The ESL Writing class celebrated its final day of class by meeting at the museum instead of the library.  We viewed the works of art, then ate lunch and discussed what we saw.  For their final writing assignment, students wrote about their favorite work of art.  It was a fun and inspiring way to wrap up the 10-week course.

Citizenship class' museum trip

Helping Immigrants by Partnering with the U.S. Government

Public libraries across the U.S. have seen a dramatic rise in the number of immigrants using the library.  Depending on the geographic location, their reasons for finding us may vary widely.  In some areas they may be newly arrived immigrants who’ve been brought here by family members, and are looking for basic English instruction.  In others, they may be refugees looking for housing and food.  In any scenario, the public library can help immigrants navigate through their new lives through a collaboration with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).

The USCIS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, recognizes the value of partnering with public libraries.  Many immigrants view libraries as a trusted place to find information and resources.  Therefore, representatives from the USCIS encourage librarians to connect library users with them.  In New Jersey, the USCIS offices are always available to answer questions about immigration from library users and librarians.

Helping to Prevent Immigration Scams

As they say, “The wrong kind of help can hurt.”  This is especially true when immigrants receive incorrect information about immigration laws and procedures.  For example, some businesses “guarantee” that they can provide a Green Card, with a higher fee to file the application than the USCIS charges. They falsely claim they can do this faster than applying directly with USCIS.

To avoid immigration scams such as this, the government has published clearly written information on all aspects of immigration, both on their website and in brochures.  This information is available in several languages.  Public libraries are encouraged to display the free brochures and immigration forms for immigrants to take home.

Immigration corner at a library

Outreach Visits from Local USCIS Representatives

While they are very useful, government publications are not the only service that libraries can provide with the help of the USCIS.  We can also ask a local representative to come to the library for a Naturalization Information Session.

At this free, two-hour session which is open to the public, immigrants can have all of their naturalization questions answered by a government official.  He or she will also explain the immigration forms that need to be filled out.  Again, library users can trust that they are getting correct information as opposed to immigration scams. The library needs only to provide the space for a session.

Does your library offer citizenship classes?  If you are fortunate enough to have a teacher or a librarian available to prepare people for the citizenship exam, it can be a great help to your community.

At the last class of the 12-week session at Piscataway Public Library in New Jersey, we invited our local USCIS representative to join us.  At this class, which was also a celebration, an Immigration Services Officer joined us.  She quizzed the class in preparation for the test, and answered their questions about the citizenship interview.  She inspired confidence in the students and was a welcome addition to the class.

Piscataway Public Library encourages other public libraries to offer ESL and citizenship classes; we are happy to offer help and advice.  Contact Kate Baker at or 732-463-1633 x6.

Immigration officer visits citizenship class

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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