In COVID-19 era, they become citizens in drive-thru

Stephanie Lai
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles — For nearly three decades, Luis Osorio dreamed of becoming a U.S. citizen. In the spring, Osorio, who left El Salvador 27 years ago, thought he was finally there. That was before the coronavirus shut down much of the country, and two ceremonies in March were postponed.

On Tuesday, he finally got to take the oath to become an American. It didn’t exactly go as the 47-year-old had dreamed.

Laith Salman (right in flag draped car) takes the Oath of Allegiance from immigration services officer Ken Rho-Renshaw during a drive thru naturalization ceremony held by the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) at Cabrillo National Monument on June 24, 2020 in San Diego, California.

It didn’t even go as Osorio had imagined it would in the COVID-19 era: people socially distanced in a large room with American flags and a big screen for a virtual ceremony.

Instead, Osorio got to raise his hand in his blue Toyota Yaris in a drive-thru in Laguna Niguel that some people mistook for a coronavirus testing site. As he held on to a certificate and a tiny American flag, Osorio was grateful all the same.

“I feel like a part of this country,” he said. “I can represent my country.”

Since early June, newly minted Americans have been coined via drive-thru naturalization ceremonies set up by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to protect against the dreaded coronavirus.

On Monday, President Donald Trump expanded visa restrictions and bars on green cards to target immigrant workers who pose “a risk of displacing and disadvantaging United States workers during the current recovery.”

Osorio’s wife, Jossline, remained hopeful that her path to citizenship would continue.

“It’s been difficult because all of the sudden they’ve said they’d stop processing for green cards,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for six to seven months now.”

As for the speedy drive-thru process Tuesday, Sofia Wolters, a 52-year-old Dana Point resident from Germany, didn’t mind it.

“It’s strange. You can look back at this unique event that you got to participate in. It’s kind of historic,” Wolters said. “It’s a negative that you don’t get the impact of the full ceremony, but you can also say, ‘Hey, I was a part of the COVID-19 process.’”

In normal times, the ceremony features a jumbo screen and more than 10,000 people in the Los Angeles Convention Center, USCIS Public Affairs Officer Claire Nicholson said. Now, about 300 people stop by the tents a day to finalize the citizenship process.

“These naturalization ceremonies are a culmination of a life journey for some people and just the beginning for others,” said Trung Vo, USCIS Santa Ana field office director. “We’re honored to be part of the lawful immigration process and included in their special day.”

Brian Gebel, a 26-year-old who emigrated from Argentina at the age of 15, was glad to finally be a citizen. He said he couldn’t wait to vote.

“It feels good to actually have a voice now. It’s a huge blessing,” Gebel said.