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A New Road to Citizenship in Detroit

Image of a drive-through naturalization ceremony

U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Morris, wearing a face shield, administers the Oath of Allegiance to the United States during a drive-through naturalization ceremony in Detroit.

Federal judges in the Motor City are embracing a novel approach to welcoming people eager to take their citizenship oaths in the age of coronavirus: Drive-through naturalization ceremonies.

This month in Detroit, federal district and magistrate judges began swearing in new citizens in drive-through ceremonies in a parking structure at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office.

Citizens-to-be drive into the parking structure, are checked in by USCIS employees clad in protective gear, and then roll up to a podium where a federal judge swears them in – all without ever leaving their vehicles. The new process eliminates the need for people to gather for indoor ceremonies at the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in downtown Detroit, in the Eastern District of Michigan.

“It is always a pleasure to swear in new citizens,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford, who swore in the first group of immigrants in a June 4 drive-through ceremony. “They are so grateful to become Americans and eager to contribute to the community. I found the drive-through citizenship ceremony to be especially meaningful because I witnessed the dedication of the USCIS professionals to innovate so that they could continue to serve immigrants during the pandemic. During this challenging time, seeing such humanity from both the new citizens and the professionals who serve them was nothing short of inspiring.”

USCIS and federal court officials met several times by teleconference to plan the drive-through ceremony, which they modeled after COVID-19 testing stations in Detroit.

The drive-through process is designed to accommodate six groups of 10 to 15 new citizens per hour – 60 to 90 per day. When they drive into the parking structure, they are asked by USCIS employees whether they are sick, have a fever, or have been out of the country within the previous 30 days. They are required to wear face masks.

If they answer no to every question, they are directed to two more checkpoints to verify their eligibility and receive a packet containing information about applying for a passport, their Oath of Allegiance to the United States, a congratulatory brochure, and a miniature American flag.

At the fourth stop, they roll down their car window and are greeted by a judge at a podium, which is flanked by American and Department of Homeland Security flags and socially distanced USCIS employees. The judge spends the next five minutes administering the Oath of Allegiance.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Morris, who got up at 5 a.m. on June 17 for the two-and-a-half hour drive from her home north of Bay City, Michigan, to swear in the new citizens, said she was thrilled to be there.

“This is fun for me because it is a happy day,” Morris said. “We don’t have many happy days in court. This is good for me and it’s good for my soul. It reminds me of how great it is to be an American.”

Among those Morris swore in were Bob Karwal, 49, and his wife, Sonia, 50, who immigrated to the United States from Toronto, Canada, in 1999. He’s an automotive engineer and she’s a certified public accountant. Their two American-born children, Rhea, 15, and Sophia, 7, sat in the back seat of their SUV while their parents took the oath.

“We love this country,” Bob Karwal said afterward. “We are here, our children are here, our roots are here. This is a land of great opportunity.”