When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic first forced courthouses to limit access to the general public, one of the first events to be canceled was an especially joyous rite: the naturalization of new U.S. citizens.
In recent weeks, a growing number of courts have begun swearing in citizens again, but with a distinctly pandemic-influenced look. As always, hands have been raised for the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, and federal judges have offered warm words of welcome, but the participants all are masked and standing at a safe social distance.
Court officials have worked to balance caution with a sense of ceremony, knowing that naturalizations remain one of the most meaningful roles courts play in many people’s lives.
“We know that people who apply for citizenship demonstrate great commitment and patiently endure a long process to attain their dream of American citizenship,” said Chief Judge Julie A. Robinson, of the District of Kansas. “We are pleased we were able to swear in these new citizens in a safe environment so that they would suffer no further delay, despite the pandemic.”
More than a half-dozen courts have conducted naturalizations at courthouses and community settings, using various strategies to minimize health risks. In addition to the District of Kansas, they include the Southern District of Iowa, the Middle District of Florida, the Eastern District of Michigan, the District of Minnesota, the Eastern and Western Districts of Missouri, and the District of Wyoming.
Courts have permitted new citizens to take their oaths in varied settings. The Eastern District of Michigan partnered with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to conduct a drive-through naturalization line in June.
And on July 2, the Eastern District of Missouri took advantage of a newly established drive-in theater in St. Louis that recently had been used for high school graduations. While the new citizens took their oaths in front of a stage, their families sat in cars, watching the ceremony from two big video screens with their car radios tuned for audio.
Most ceremonies, though, have been conducted on courthouse property.
In the Western District of Missouri, new citizens stood on marked spaces six feet apart in the Kansas City, Missouri, courthouse lobby. Some court employees watched from a balcony above.
“This was one of those times you are so very proud to work with the court and the people in it,” said Court Executive Paige Wymore-Wynn. “Our judges were absolutely supportive of this effort, and the staff that put it together were just amazing. To look out at the lobby and know we were making a true difference for these new citizens just takes your breath away.”
All courts have resorted to holding multiple small ceremonies to permit physical distancing.
The Western District of Missouri held 19 ceremonies over three days, swearing in more than 500 new citizens. The District of Kansas conducted eight 15-minute ceremonies daily, with 15 new citizens per ceremony—increasing to four 30-person ceremonies on the last day after local government restrictions were relaxed.
In the Eastern District of Missouri, the courthouse lobby in St. Louis was the site of a similar marathon, with 330 citizens naturalized during 39 naturalization ceremonies conducted over seven days. District, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges took turns officiating small ceremonies so that new citizens could safely distance themselves from each other.
“It was clear they were very excited to clear this last step on their way to American citizenship,” said Chief Judge Rodney W. Sippel, of the Eastern District of Missouri. “These new citizens have waited a long time and accomplished a lot of things to get to this moment.”
In Minneapolis, five small test ceremonies were held in May, with 10 new citizens each standing in pre-marked spaces in the plaza outside the courthouse. The court plans to continue using the same plan on a greater scale.
“The ceremony was very different, but it was just as meaningful; wonderful people becoming American citizens,” said Chief Judge John R. Tunheim, of the District of Minnesota, who presided over two of five ceremonies held May 27. “Our new citizens deserve not to have to wait any longer for the benefits and responsibilities of being American citizens. They add so much to our country and our communities.”
In Kansas, ceremonies were held on the first floor to limit possible spread of infection. After passing through a hand sanitation station, new citizens were seated six feet apart from one another.
Despite increased safety measures, many of the emotions typically present in a naturalization ceremony prevailed.
U.S. District Judge Daniel D. Crabtree, of the District of Kansas, told new citizens, “Even through your masks, I can see the smiles in your eyes, and my heart sings for you.”
Chief Judge Scott W. Skavdahl, of the District of Wyoming, said his court initially considered postponing a recent naturalization ceremony. “However, appreciating the significance of the event in their lives and that of their families, as well as the Court’s joy in holding them,” Skavdahl said, “it was determined that three separate ceremonies would be held.”
When Skavdahl asked the new citizens to share their thoughts, one woman from Ukraine spoke emotionally. “It is a huge privilege to be a citizen of the United States,” she said. “I fought a long journey for it. It took me 12 years, but I am very honored and happy. I won’t let you down.”
In each of the courts, family members could not attend the ceremonies in person. But relatives watched through courthouse windows in Western Missouri and Kansas. And the Kansas and Wyoming courts livestreamed audio and video of the naturalizations on YouTube.
“I could see many family members listening and watching the ceremony on their phones, while peeking through the windows,” said Kim Leininger, division manager of the Kansas City, Kansas, courthouse. “After the oath, they cheered and clapped just like they would have for a normal ceremony. The human spirit always amazes me, because where there is a will there is always a way.”
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