Citizenship by drive-thru? Immigrants now take oath in cars

Tribune Content Agency

DETROIT — After years waiting to become American citizens, dozens of immigrants saw their dreams realized Wednesday — though the big moment wasn’t exactly what they had envisioned.

They took their oaths in a drive-thru.

Without ever leaving their cars, they raised their right hands and vowed to be good and law-abiding Americans — all while wearing a face mask as a judge donning a plastic face shield stood 6 feet away.

Welcome to the age of COVID-19, where pulling off large ceremonies like naturalization has forced officials to get creative, which is precisely what immigration authorities in Michigan did after the pandemic shut down the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. That’s where naturalization ceremonies typically take place, complete with fanfare, flag waving, hugs and tears.

But for the time being, America’s newest citizens will have to settle for a parking garage at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Detroit. Because of the pandemic, there’s a backlog of more than 1,000 immigrants waiting to take their oaths of allegiance, so officials came up with a system modeled after the coronavirus testing drive-thrus.

On Wednesday, car after car rolled through the drive-thru, filled with hopeful faces that came to America from every corner of the world.

Albania. Brazil. Nigeria. India. Bangladesh. China. Iran. Ukraine. Mexico. Lithuania.

These are the countries they left behind, to begin anew in a country that promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“I hope for a better life,” said Aung Min, 44, of Burma, a sushi chef at Kroger who once worked odd carpenter and construction jobs in a small Burmese town to help care for his parents, who he described as poor.

Min — who lives in Warren with his Burmese-native wife, who is also a U.S. citizen, and his American-born daughter — said what he likes best about America is the freedom it offers for everyone. And he’s excited to vote this fall, noting he’ll be voting to reelect President Donald Trump because he believes Trump is “trying to help people work” and that under his leadership “everyone can work.”

Min demonstrated his own work ethic as he left his naturalization ceremony and headed straight to work at Kroger.

“I am very happy,” Min said, smiling.

Canadians Bob and Sonia Karwal of Rochester were also beaming after becoming Americans on Wednesday, taking their oaths while their two daughters sat at in the backseat of their silver Chevy Traverse — the eldest videotaping the big moment on her iPhone.

Being Canadian, the Karwals didn’t have to become Americans to live here, though they chose to because, they said, this is where they belong. They moved from Toronto to the U.S. in 1999. Their jobs are here: he’s an engineer, she’s an accountant. And their children, Sophia, 7, and Rhea, 15, were born here.

“We have roots here,” said Sonia Karwal, 50. “We love this country. We are proud of this country. Our children are here. Our lives are here.”

Before being sworn in as citizens, the Karwals and others had to go through four checkpoints.

The first one was at the parking structure entrance, where they were asked whether they were sick, had a fever or had been out of the country within the previous 30 days.

If they answered no to every question, they proceeded to the second checkpoint, where verification is done: who they are, are they there on the right day. The third stop is where they received a packet containing information about applying for a passport, their Oath of Allegiance, a congratulatory brochure and a miniature American flag.

At the fourth stop, they rolled down their car window and were greeted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Morris, who stood at a podium flanked by American and Department of Homeland Security flags and two socially distanced immigration employees.

Morris, who volunteered to do the naturalization ceremonies, took about 5 minutes administering the oath, and then congratulated each new American, flashing a smile and clapping her hands along with about a dozen other federal employees.

“It’s good for my soul,” Morris said of the naturalization event. “It’s good to remember how exciting it is to be an American.”

After the ceremony, the new citizens were directed out of the parking structure by a federal immigration employee — completing their yearslong journey.

The Karwals said they had initially planned on having friends at their ceremony, but understood the need for the drive-thru version. After working on citizenship since 2008, they were just glad they were able to finally be able to be sworn in, and are looking forward to voting in the fall. They noted it’s exciting to become Americans during this historic yet turbulent time.

“We’re actually going to be part of history,” Sonia Karwal said. “At the very end, it was worth it.”


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