A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Magazine Feature

Welcome to the United States: Naturalization Ceremonies at Your Public Library

by Linda Osuna, Carol Reich on August 1, 2019

Linda Osuna / Linda.Osuna@hillsboro-oregon.gov. Linda is Library Manager at Hillsboro (OR) Public Library. She is currently reading Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi. Carol Reich / Carol.Reich@hillsboro-oregon.gov. Carol is Library Manager at Hillsboro (OR) Public Library. She is currently reading Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski.

The Hillsboro (OR) Public Library (HPL) has spent the past five years rebranding itself as a community center, a welcoming place for all. As inspired by HPL’s new mission statement (For Everyone, Para Todos), the staff have embraced and implemented a service model in which the library is a place where the entire community gathers, connects, and explores. As part of this new service model, we strive to create relationships with, and within, our community, as well as to provide an environment where our patrons may have significant interactions and experiences with HPL staff and with each other. And what better way to have a significant experience in one’s life than to take the new citizen’s oath of allegiance at the public library! 

In the past four years, HPL has hosted two naturalization ceremonies and found them to be a natural outgrowth of our service and a stellar opportunity to partner positively with the federal govern-ment. 

While libraries might hesitate to undertake what may seem a complex and lengthy preparation process in order to host a naturalization ceremony, we are here to tell you that the struggle can be real, but the payoff is worth all the work. The ceremony provides the library an excellent PR opportunity; an unusual and noteworthy programming event; and the opportunity to create for the ceremony’s participants, families, and friends a highly emotional connection that will always resonate with them, and which places the public library firmly in their minds as the site where they experienced one of the most significant moments of their life. 

As Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway told the group during his keynote, “You have all worked so hard to get here. . . . You each have a unique story. You each are on a unique journey. One thing you all have in common is your perseverance, your determination, and your resilience.”1 

“One thing you and I now have in common is we’re citizens of the greatest country on Earth,” Mayor Callaway said. “Another is that we are equals. You are equal to me and all other citizens. The richest person, the most powerful person, the smartest person, they each get one vote. Just like you and me. So, make your voice heard, make sure you vote. It’s your privilege and it’s our responsibility.”2 

And here’s how the Hillsboro Public Library got to that point. 

SANCTUARY CITY TO NATURALIZATION CEREMONY 

In 2017, Hillsboro City Council voted to designate Hillsboro a sanctuary city. Mayor Callaway cast the deciding vote to approve the symbolic resolution during the March 7th city council meeting. This vote signified the City of Hillsboro’s commitment to welcoming all, regardless of their documentation status. Even prior to that, the library had already been actively working on behalf of those who were not yet citizens and had made a commitment to the community to partner with SOAR Immigration Legal Services, a local nonprofit organization, to provide citizenship classes designed to prepare learners for the U.S. naturalization interview and exam, which includes an assessment of English reading and writing abilities, and knowledge of U.S. history and civics. Additionally, HPL already routinely offered several English practice and discussion groups, as well as information for patrons about U.S. immigration and naturalization at “Citizenship Corners” at both branches. We obtained civics and citizenship toolkits and information from our local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) field office. (These materials are free and available online, or you may contact your local field office)

These resources are important for those on the path to citizenship. For them, the library is often a destination for (and trusted source of ) information, services, and programming. And for some, a free library may even be a new experience as they become familiar with their neighborhood and discover their public library as a welcoming space for them and their family. Taking the first steps toward their participation in democracy, they can rely on the library as they learn, ask questions, and seek and find answers. HPL Director Stephanie Chase summarized this well in her naturalization ceremony welcoming remarks, “Public libraries are such an excellent example of democracy in action: dedicated to ensuring all community members have a voice and have the opportunity to exercise that voice.”3 

USCIS IS YOUR PARTNER 

According to a February 2019 article in The New York Times (Jordan 2019), many USCIS offices across the United States have a backlog of applications for citizenship.4 This increase in applications in the past several years has created opportunities for other venues such as the public library to host naturalization ceremonies, since the USCIS is very busy dealing with the large influx of applications and is happy to have community partners host the final ceremony. Also working in our favor is the fact that USCIS offices are very interested in working with public libraries because they fulfill the requirement that USCIS must use “neutral facilities that are not specific to any religion, commercial enterprise, or political affiliation.”5 On the library side, the ceremony offers an opportunity to raise visibility as a gathering place for the community and also to highlight libraries as more than staid, traditional book depositories. And for those who become citizens, including many of those who recently participated in Hillsboro’s April 2019 ceremony, we are confident that the library will hold a significant place in their hearts and minds. So, what steps should you and your library staff consider in crafting such a special experience? 

VENUE AND BUDGET 

Your unique opportunity begins with contacting the community relations officer at your local USCIS office. If your library then decides to pursue this opportunity, and move to hosting a naturalization ceremony, there are several things to consider. 

To begin, it’s important to know that the USCIS does not necessarily give host sites a great deal of time to plan and schedule a ceremony. For example, HPL had six weeks’ notice during which to arrange its 2019 event, dealing with venue scheduling, budget allocations, decorations, and local and USCIS speakers. 

Smaller ceremony sites such as the public library are chosen mostly based on geographic location and the space available for accommodating all the people who may be involved in watching or participating in the ceremony, which is usually capped at sixty participants. You will have to start by determining if you have ample room to host the participants, their family, and friends. HPL’s recent event hosted forty-nine naturalization candidates from twenty-eight different countries who resided across the Portland metro area. In addition, approximately 125 individuals came to the library in support of a candidate, creating a strong supportive crowd in our large event room. 

Depending on the number of candidates taking the oath that day and the expectations of your local USCIS field office, the ceremony will be kept on a tight schedule and may be quite succinct. And while the USCIS will work closely with libraries prior to the ceremony, the library itself will have an opportunity and responsibility to create and design an event which will enhance the importance of the ceremony. This program’s ambiance is key. You must consider how to craft a welcoming environment for a very important and memorable experience. 

You should consider local partnerships, such as working with your local law enforcement agency or veteran’s organization to send an honor guard to perform the presentation of colors, and look into contracting with a local musician or high school ensemble to play the national anthem at your event, and perhaps to supply background music before and after the ceremony. Invite your library director to say a few words at the ceremony to welcome your newest citizens. Seek out a local government representative, such as your mayor, to enhance the ceremony with a brief keynote address and join the USCIS staff in welcoming the candidates as newly naturalized citizens. Seek out participants who are invested and in tune with the meaning of the ceremony, who will uphold the significance and dignity of the occasion and who are willing to prepare non-partisan remarks. 

Public libraries along with other government agencies are having to make tough decisions about how to best serve patrons and to figure out creative ways to stretch each programming dollar. Do not let this deter your library from considering hosting a ceremony. Remember, the library is creating an experience rather than providing a service, so a big budget is not really necessary. Participants are going to remember how they felt at your library when they took the Oath of Allegiance and not what flowers decorated the stage they walked across. You may find that people are more than happy to donate their time and talents to this type of event because of its magnitude, and so few costs may have to be paid by the library itself. You may have a Friends of the Library or Library Foundation group who would find this type of event worthy of contributing to its success. 

As a final step, remember that the USCIS office must approve all guest speakers and review their remarks for content and length in advance of the event. They will require that you share the names and contact information of each of the volunteers who will be either performing at or participating in the ceremony. And for those who will be speaking at the event, the USCIS office will follow up with a confirmation letter along with guidelines for their remarks. In addition, the local field office will determine the appropriate level of participation for the occasion regarding the speaker’s presentation length and the content of their remarks. And since this is an official event of the federal government, no last-minute speaker substitutions are allowed, and under no circumstances may any non-USCIS official perform any USCIS function such as issuing the Oath of Allegiance or distributing the Certificates of Naturalization to the newly naturalized U.S. citizens. 

PLANNING YOUR CEREMONY 

There are two types of naturalization ceremonies: 

  1. In a judicial ceremony, the court administers the Oath of Allegiance. 
  2. In an administrative ceremony, USCIS administers the Oath of Allegiance; libraries host this type of ceremony. 

Public libraries are neutral spaces in the community where everyone is welcome, and so people often do not view them like other government entities such as the police or the courts. This means libraries have a unique opportunity to serve as a natural gathering space. We are committed to providing equitable access for everyone, so having an administrative ceremony take place at a public library makes perfect sense and ties into our role in the community. (More detailed information regarding this type of ceremony is available online.)

When you visit the USCIS website, you will find step-by-step information on citizenship and naturalization ceremonies and everything required to host an administrative naturalization ceremony at your library. On the website under “Model Plan for Administrative Naturalization Ceremonies,” you will find information on what the expectations are for the host site, plus an explanation and steps of the ceremony program and rules for participants, including guest speakers. The site also provides information for any voter registration information that may be distributed at the end of the administrative naturalization ceremony when the new citizens become eligible to vote. 

GET STAFF INVOLVED 

The planning of the naturalization ceremony is an opportunity to get staff involved in a relatively simple event-planning experience. Depending on your vision and budget, everything from setting up chairs and ordering light snacks and coffee, to reaching out to secure the honor guard and contacting a keynote speaker will be needed. The beauty of this event is that the library can have a simple role in making this event a memorable experience for the newest U.S. citizens. Because your library will be hosting this important event, you should take advantage of the opportunity to have “Welcome to [your library name]” signs, have staff serve as hosts and show the library guests where they will sit during the ceremony, and perhaps provide some light snacks because, after all, this is a celebration! It’s up you to “set the table” for your guests and make them feel welcome in the space. At HPL, we set up a selfie station for those who wanted to take a photo in front of the U.S. flag, and we rented a podium to increase the visibility of the speakers. 

Appropriate background music before and after the ceremony is a lovely touch. However, you will need to inform the USCIS field office if you have a performing ensemble or soloist perform and provide their names and contact information. 

After HPL’s ceremony, we received impressive feedback from our staff planning group about their participation in the planning process. A fellow employee who volunteered with setup and hosting at the ceremony said that she was moved when she watched everyone take their Oath of Allegiance. HPL Library Assistant Serena Davis commented, “I feel so proud to be a citizen of the United States and I’m so happy for everyone today!”6 It truly is an emotional ceremony when you stop to think how hard people have worked to get to your library on that special day and you see the faces and reactions of the new citizens and their supporters. Be sure to have tissue boxes readily available throughout the room—they’ll be needed. 

MEDIA AND PROMOTION 

Hosting a naturalization ceremony is a fantastic PR opportunity for a library since there will be many photo opportunities featuring families, children, and local speakers that will make perfect images to use in future marketing and advertising campaigns for your organization. Have your photo release forms ready for those beaming faces! 

For HPL, this was another example of the library playing a role in community building and highlighting that our library is truly a space in which everyone is welcome. After receiving confirmation from the USCIS that we would be hosting a ceremony, we contacted our city communications office to send out a press release, and a media advisory to local news outlets and newspapers detailing the “who, what, where, when, why” for our event. Sample media advisory templates can be found on the internet in case your library handles all communication in-house. When it comes to social media promotion, which can be very effective in promoting other types of library events, it should be determined whether or not your library will invite the general public to attend or prefers to focus on issuing an announcement after the event. Depending on the size of your venue, keeping the ceremony as a small, intimate program for the participants and their immediate family and friends may be the right choice. 

Offering an official ceremony program for the event is always a great idea and creates a nice keepsake for the participants. However, before you begin the design it is a good idea to work with your local USCIS field office for any specific information regarding the ceremony. You may also talk to your local USCIS field office and determine if they would prefer to produce this document themselves or have you handle it instead. On the USCIS website (under “Ceremony Program”) it lists all of the information required for the program. Again, be sure to have all the names, titles, and contact information ready and made available to the community relations officer at the local field office no later than a week before the scheduled ceremony. 

NOW, THAT WAS FUN! 

You did it! You collaborated, planned, organized, set up, and presented one of the most important and gratifying programs of your programming year. Just as fast as it all came together, it’s now a fond memory for the people who entered your library as a naturalization candidate and left an official U.S. citizen, and they will never forget the incredible experience they had at your library. 

Library Director Chase said it best: Here, in this organization dedicated to those principles, as you take your oath of citizenship, it is a special and symbolic moment. Thank you for your commitment to our country and thank you for sharing your experience with us. Most importantly, on behalf of the Hillsboro Public Library and the City of Hillsboro staff, as well as the whole Hillsboro community, welcome.”7 

This event, like so many others we as library professionals plan, organize, and execute, is why we love libraries! We are community builders, innovators, connectors, and engagers. We care about our communities and are passionate about ensuring that everyone feels welcome and is treated with respect the moment they walk in. The individuals who participated in your naturalization ceremony may not walk away remembering your name, but they will never forget how you made them feel on their special day. That is something you can be proud of and you can know that you were a part of something truly special. 

Mayor Callaway acknowledged this after the naturalization ceremony writing, “Each time they tell the stories of becoming a citizen, Hillsboro and our library will be a part of their narrative. Thank you. Each time they share pictures of their ceremony, Hillsboro and our library will be included. Thank you.”8 

We encourage you to consider hosting a naturalization ceremony in your community. Hosting the naturalization ceremony for a second time at HPL was a tremendous honor for the city and we were also excited to be hosting our event during 2019’s National Library Week. In Hillsboro, like so many other communities, HPL prides itself in not only being a trusted resource for information but also a welcoming space for everyone in the community. 

References 

  1. Steve Callaway, email message to Stephanie Chase, Apr. 11, 2019. 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Stephanie Chase, USCIS naturalization ceremony welcoming remarks, Apr. 11, 2019. 
  4. Miriam Jordan, “Wait Times for Citizenship Have Doubled in the Last Two Years,” The New York Times, Feb. 21, 2019, accessed July 2, 2019.
  5. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Policy Manual,” accessed July 2, 2019.
  6. Serena Davis, interview with the author, Apr. 11, 2019. 
  7. Chase. 
  8. Callaway. 


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