In El Cajon, Calif., a procession of cars carrying 600 soon-to-be U.S. citizens from 68 countries passed through a series of stations behind a local community center earlier this week, where they were asked a series of final questions: "Any coronavirus symptoms? Have you been arrested since your interview? No tickets, nothing like that?"
After that, they were asked to surrender their green card and given a small U.S. flag. Driving a little farther forward, an immigration officer wearing a face cover administered the oath of allegiance 6 feet from the car's window. And in a matter of minutes, years of uncertainty were over — hundreds of people became U.S. citizens over the course of the day.
When the coronavirus pandemic put a hold on naturalization ceremonies in March, it left a backlog of thousands of people who had qualified to become citizens but hadn't been able to officially swear an oath of allegiance — the final step in the often years-long process.
To try to clear the backlog as quickly and safely as possible, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services put together a series of naturalization drive-throughs, where prospective citizens could take the final step toward citizenship without leaving their cars.
Prior to the shutdown, the greater San Diego area held its monthly naturalization ceremonies at Golden Hall, a giant venue in downtown San Diego that fits thousands of people. During the coronavirus pandemic, it has been converted to a homeless shelter.
"Whoo-whoo!" Belinda Rodriguez shouted from a parking spot, just moments after becoming a citizen.
Rodriguez had been working toward naturalization for 20 years. She brought her sister and niece along with her for the drive-through ceremony. She was relieved to finally be able to take her final step toward citizenship before she had to renew her residency permit.
"I was thinking my card was going to expire," Rodriguez said. "I was going to have to do it again and maybe have a longer time than this, pay more money, more fees."
Immigration officers in El Cajon held drive-through ceremonies every weekday since early June to play catch-up for the three months that there were no ceremonies in Golden Hall.
"Golden Hall is a great ceremony, but this makes it a lot more personal almost," said Madeline Kristoff, the USCIS field officer for San Diego. "The officers get to participate in ways they normally don't get to in Golden Hall. And it's really fun to talk to people who are driving through and get to hear a little of their stories."
Instead of greeting an auditorium full of faces, immigration officers administering the oath are often doing so for just one or two people at a time.
"I wish we could get a cheeseburger or like a milkshake for you guys too," said one immigration officer, making conversation with driver Niru Reinier.
Reinier, from India, was naturalized 10 years ago. On Monday, she chauffeured her mother, who was becoming a citizen.
"I called my sister and I said, 'I feel like this is so SoCal.' Everything happens quickly," she said.
Ready to vote
Many of the new citizens said what they were looking forward to most was voting in elections this November.
"We got our interview right before the shutdown, and I didn't know if I was going to be able to vote, which ultimately is an important part of why I want to become a citizen," said Raphael Declercq, who was born in France. He appreciated that the drive-through was able to make that happen. "I'm glad they're making those efforts."
Outside of a regular naturalization ceremony, voter registration tables greet people as they exit. At the drive-through, there were no booths to be found. But, along with their small U.S. flags, new citizens were given packets that included instructions on how to register to vote.
USCIS, currently facing a massive budget shortfall due to a reduction of visa applications, is looking to transition back to larger naturalization events later this summer.
"All right, congratulations to you, give her a big round of applause. You are now our newest United States citizens," said an immigration officer after administering the oath for the third consecutive hour.
The new citizen responded with a short honk of her car horn.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The pandemic put naturalization ceremonies across the country on hold in March. They're usually held in big rooms with friends and family. Now, thousands of immigrants have safely become citizens over the last few weeks thanks to naturalization drive-throughs. Reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler of member station KPBS reports from Southern California.
MAX RIVLIN-NADLER, BYLINE: Behind a community center in El Cajon, Calif., lay the end to the long journey towards citizenship.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: No tickets, nothing like that?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No. No.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: OK, perfect.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Drivers are asked if they have any coronavirus symptoms, if they've been arrested recently and if they're ready to surrender their green card.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: You have your green card?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sure.
RIVLIN-NADLER: They're all given a small American flag and drive into a roundabout where an immigration officer administers the oath of allegiance through the driver's side window from 6 feet away.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: And who's naturalizing here?
RIVLIN-NADLER: The officer asks the about-to-be citizens to raise their right hands.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: I hereby declare on oath that I absolutely and entirely renounce and...
RIVLIN-NADLER: And just like that, they're citizens, all without leaving their cars.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Congratulations to you both. You are now our newest United States citizens.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Six hundred people from 68 countries participated in the drive-through ceremony earlier this week in El Cajon.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm from France originally.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm originally from Afghanistan, Nangarhar province.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yucatan - Mexico.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Prior to the shutdown, San Diego held its monthly ceremonies at Golden Hall, a giant venue downtown which fits thousands of people. During the coronavirus pandemic, It's been converted to a homeless shelter. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services only began holding these daily drive-throughs in San Diego in early June. One of those brand-new citizens was Belinda Rodriguez, who was born in Mexico.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Congratulations.
RIVLIN-NADLER: She's been working towards naturalization for 20 years. She brought her sister and niece along with her. She didn't think her ceremony would be quite like this.
BELINDA RODRIGUEZ: Oh, no, it's very different (laughter) not in this condition. But I'm excited also.
RIVLIN-NADLER: She was happy to finally be able to do the ceremony before she had to renew her residency.
RODRIGUEZ: I was thinking that my card was going to expire, so I was going to do it again.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Immigration officers have had to play catch-up for the three months that there were no ceremonies in Golden Hall. Madeline Kristoff is the field officer for San Diego.
MADELINE KRISTOFF: Golden Hall is a great ceremony, but this makes it a lot more personal almost. So the officers get to participate in ways that they normally don't get to at Golden Hall. And it's really fun being able to talk to people as they're driving through and get to hear a little bit of their stories.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: I wish we could get, like, a cheeseburger or a milkshake or something for you guys too in drive-through fashion.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Niru Reinier from India was naturalized 10 years ago. On Monday, she chauffeured her mother who was becoming a citizen.
NIRU REINIER: I called my sister and I said, I feel like this is so SoCal (laughter). Everything happens quickly.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Many who participated said what they were looking forward to most was voting in elections this November. Raphael Declercq was born in France.
RAPHAEL DECLERCQ: We got our interview right before the shutdown. And I didn't know if I was going to be able to vote, which ultimately is an important part of why I want to become a citizen. So I'm glad that they're making those efforts.
RIVLIN-NADLER: Outside of a regular naturalization ceremony, voter registration booths greet people as they exit. At the drive-through, there were no booths to be found. But, along with their small American flags, new citizens were given packets which included instructions on how to register to vote.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: All right. Congratulations to you. Give her a big round of applause. You are now our newest United States citizen.
RIVLIN-NADLER: For NPR News, I'm Max Rivlin-Nadler in El Cajon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.