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Drive-Thru Naturalizations Put New Citizens Behind The Wheel

A man takes the oath to become a citizen at a drive-thru naturalization site ...

Photo by Max Rivlin-Nadler

Above: A man takes the oath to become a citizen at a drive-thru naturalization site in El Cajon on June 29th, 2020.

Behind a community center in El Cajon, lay the end to the long journey to citizenship.

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.

Then, they pull into the roundabout and hold up their right hand to pledge allegiance to their new country.

Just like that, they’re citizens.

The coronavirus pandemic put a hold on naturalization ceremonies in San Diego’s Golden Hall in March. So US Citizenship and Immigration Services had been exploring ways to safely allow people to take the oath of allegiance.

Since early June, they’ve been holding daily drive-thru naturalization ceremonies like this one.

Belinda Rodriguez, who was born in Mexico, came to the ceremony with her sister and niece. She’s been trying to become a citizen for twenty years.

She didn’t think her naturalization would be quite like this.

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Reported by Max Rivlin-Nadler , Video by Matthew Bowler

“Oh no, it’s very different!” she told KPBS moments after becoming a citizen. “But I’m very excited. Emotional and excited about it, and I’m very happy.”

Without the monthly ceremonies at Golden Hall, which fits thousands of people, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has had to play catch-up for the three months with no ceremonies.

“It’s actually really fun,” said Madeline Kristoff, a field office director for USCIS. “Golden Hall is a great ceremony but this makes it a lot more personal, almost. The officers get to participate in ways they normally don’t get to in Golden Hall. It’s fun to talk to people who are driving through and get to hear a little of their stories.”

Niru Reinier, from India, came to the drive-thru naturalization with her daughter and mother. She had become a citizen a decade ago at Golden hall. Her mother was naturalizing at the drive-thru.

“I called my sister and I said, ‘I feel like this is so SoCal!' Everything happens quickly,” she said.

They were going to go to Solana Beach to celebrate in a safe, socially-distant way.

What did each new citizen say they were looking forward to most this year? Voting in elections this November.

“It’s my first thinking, as a citizen, to vote,” said Mohammad Harwon, who immigrated from Afghanistan.

The drive-thru ceremonies will wrap up at the end of this week, as USCIS looks for ways to safely bring back larger events.

Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

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Photo of Max Rivlin-Nadler

Max Rivlin-Nadler
Speak City Heights Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover City Heights, a neighborhood at the intersection of immigration, gentrification, and neighborhood-led health care initiatives. I'm interested in how this unique neighborhood deals with economic inequality during an unprecedented global health crisis.

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