By: Paige Masten
“Do you want to get your citizenship today?”
Today? Deepak Venkatasubramanian blinks, taken aback by the officer’s question. When he arrived at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Charlotte, North Carolina, that morning, it was for the naturalization interview — one of the final hurdles in the naturalization process.
Many applicants experience an additional waiting period between the interview and naturalization ceremony. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, USCIS has largely shifted to same-day naturalization ceremonies in an attempt to minimize the flow of people entering and exiting the facility.
It’s Aug. 18, 2020 — a day Venkatasubramanian, 20, has been waiting for. A day he’ll now remember forever.
Today, he will become a U.S. citizen.
Venkatasubramanian, who studies economics and statistics at UNC-Chapel Hill, is one of the lucky ones. The coronavirus pandemic has created an enormous backlog of naturalization applications, interviews and ceremonies — preventing hundreds of thousands of would-be citizens from registering in time to vote on Election Day.
USCIS, the federal agency in charge of adjudicating citizenship, has said it expects to naturalize 600,000 people in the 2020 fiscal year. But in fiscal year 2019, the agency naturalized 834,000 — about 30 percent more people.
Venkatasubramanian has already passed the English and civics examination, wedged inside a cubicle, separated from the officer by a Plexiglas divider.
From behind the glass, the officer asked him a series of questions, ranging from “What is the capital of your state?” to “What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?”
Now, he stands face-to-face with a tablet, videoconferencing with another officer to review his application — another one of the agency’s COVID-19 precautions.
“Were you ever a communist?” the officer asked.
“No,” Venkatasubramanian replied.
“Have you ever committed a war crime?”
But the officer’s most recent question — “Do you want to get your citizenship today?” — is the most unexpected one of all.
“Yes,” he says. “Yes, I would love to get my citizenship today.”
So, that afternoon, Venkatasubramanian takes the Oath of Allegiance, relinquishing his ties to other countries and giving up his green card forever.
It’s bittersweet. He’d hoped to be surrounded by family and friends on this day — after all, they’re the ones who got him here — but the pandemic doesn’t allow it. Instead, he finds himself alone, accompanied only by 12 strangers who share his same dream: to become a United States citizen.
Afterward, he asks one of his fellow newly sworn-in citizens to take his photo, so that he’d have something to remember it by.
In the photo, Venkatasubramanian is smiling from ear to ear, holding a miniature American flag. Pieces of red, white and blue electrical tape mark a spot on the floor where he’s meant to stand to enforce social distancing guidelines.
As he drives home, he listens to one of his favorite songs: “American Boy” by Estelle featuring Kanye West. But today, the lyrics have a new meaning.
Walking that walk, talk that slick talk
I’m liking this American boy, American boy
A Vote With a Backstory
Venkatasubramanian, his parents and his older sister moved to the U.S. from India in 2013. They settled in Charlotte, where Venkatasubramanian would begin high school, and then, college.
They moved to the U.S. once before, in 2006. They lived in New Jersey for two years, until the recession hit, and his father, who worked in the mortgage industry, was sent back to India by his employer.
The Venkatasubramanians became lawful permanent residents in 2015. This time around, they knew the move would be more permanent. With a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son, it was time to settle down. They wanted their children to attend high school and college in America, sparing them the pressure of the fiercely competitive education system in their native India.
Once becoming a lawful permanent resident, you have to wait five years before you’re eligible to apply for citizenship. So, in January 2020 — as soon as they were eligible —Venkatasubramanians submitted their application for citizenship.
In June, they received notice that their applications were accepted. It was a quick turnaround — most people who apply for citizenship wait much longer.
“My story is one of the easiest stories,” Venkatasubramanian says. “It’s what people think everyone goes through when trying to become a citizen.”
A Vote That’s Unprecedented
Nearly two months later, Venkatasubramanian casts his vote for the very first time. He remembers the exact date: Oct. 10.
It was much different than what he’d always pictured. He chose to vote by mail, filling out his ballot at his girlfriend’s kitchen table rather than in a voting booth. His girlfriend, Marine, serves as his witness.
On the first day of early voting in North Carolina, Venkatasubramanian drives to the closest early voting site to drop off his absentee ballot in person — it’s the closest he’ll get to the experience he’s always dreamed of. He boasts his “I Voted” sticker proudly.
When 2020 began, he wasn’t sure if he’d get the chance to vote. Now, he’s finishing out the year having done so for the first time.
Venkatasubramanian is evidence of a changing electorate. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, a record 1 in 10 eligible voters in the 2020 election will be immigrants.
Venkatasubramanian spent most of college volunteering for and organizing voter registration drives with NCPIRG, an advocacy group at UNC-Chapel Hill that promotes civic engagement. Since he couldn’t vote himself, it was his way of being involved in American democracy.
For a long time, it was his signature line: “You should register to vote, because I can’t!” Now, the line no longer applies.
A Vote That Matters
It’s a surreal time to become a U.S. citizen — amid a pandemic, a racial reckoning and a contentious presidential election, when just 19 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with the current state of the nation.
It’s a thought that’s crossed Venkatasubramanian’s mind many times. There was a moment of hesitation when he submitted his application, he admits, but deep down, he knows he did the right thing.
“This is the best thing for my future, but can I really say I’m proud to be an American?” Venkatasubramanian says.
If anything, though, it makes it all the more meaningful. Now, he has a say, a vote, that matters. It’s something he’ll never take for granted.
He keeps his certificate of citizenship tucked proudly inside a plastic page protector. After years of anticipation and waiting, it’s earned a spot among his most prized possessions.
“For a long time,” Venkatasubramanian says, “I was looking through the glass. But now? Now, I’m inside the club.”
Edited By Ryan Heller