The Real Reason to Worry About Immigrant Voting

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The Real Reason to Worry About Immigrant Voting

Hint: It has nothing to do with Trump's "rigged election" allegations.

This election is raising questions about how true America is being to Lady Liberty's promise. (Photo: Jeff Summers/flickr/cc)

While Donald Trump blathers on about a rigged election — a theory downplayed by a wide range of experts and his own running mate — and urges vigilance against hordes of undocumented people casting imaginary ballots, one real problem with this year’s electoral process is the opposite of the dire scenarios the GOP nominee is conjuring up.

If there’s any kind of rigging of the vote going on, it’s in Trump’s favor: the government effectively excluded large numbers of immigrant voters this year by failing to process more than half of the nearly 930,000 citizenship applications from legal permanent residents who filed in the 12 months ending in mid-September. These potential voters technically filed for naturalization early enough to be assured a chance to register and vote, the National Partnership for New Americans observed. The group blamed the backlog on US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security known as USCIS. 

“It is unconscionable that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spends billions of dollars to deport immigrants and destroy their families, but that the same department cannot identify adequate resources to serve aspiring American citizens,” the Partnership said in a report that called 15 states “disenfranchisement danger zones.” The list — which includes the swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and North Carolina — covers territory where “naturalization backlogs are large, growing rapidly, or both.”

That many permanent residents who meet the requirements for becoming citizens would naturalize during this election is no surprise. Trump’s disparagement of people with Mexican heritage and other newcomers “energized the activists and certainly energized the immigrants,” observes Southwest Voter Education Project president Antonio Gonzalez. “But USCIS failed us.”

To hear Trump and his backers tell it, the danger is the polls being overrun by people ineligible to vote.

“I’ll look for . . . well, it’s called racial profiling. Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American,” Steve Webb, a 61-year-old carpenter and Trump supporter from Fairfield, Ohio, told The Boston Globe.

“I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally. I want to see if they are accountable. I’m not going to do anything illegal,” Webb said, describing his Election Day plans. “I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.”

Speak American? Someone better tell Webb that millions of citizens who are not proficient in English have both a right to vote and the right to bilingual ballots. And that voter intimidation is illegal. Electoral vigilantes who engage in the activities he described will keep local authorities busy. Not even official poll watchers may directly interact with a voter or get within a specific distance of a voter — usually 6 feet — without breaking the law.

None of Trump’s fears about election rigging are “reflective of reality,” as Politifact pointed out. Trump’s officially “pants-on-fire” lies about immigrants without papers barging into voting booths are baffling since they have no incentive to flout election laws. With hundreds of thousands of newcomers being disenfranchised, it’s an ironic time to rail about immigrant voting.

The historical record undermines Trump’s latest assertions of rampant voter fraud driven by illegal immigrants. In fact, legal immigrants have traditionally participated less in our electoral process than everyone else. When the Census looked into immigrant voting patterns between 1996 and 2010, it found naturalized citizens far less likely to register or vote than people born in this country. In 2008, more than 64 percent of US-born Americans of voting age showed up at the polls, versus 54 percent of naturalized immigrants.

As for immigrants who lack papers, they have no incentive to get anywhere near the polls. “Undocumented individuals are scared of the government,” says Lizet Ocampo, director of the People For the American Way’s Latinos Vote! project. “Why would they risk breaking the law (by voting) when they’re already worried about being deported and the hatred they have to deal with because of Donald Trump?”

The threat to democracy could be significant on Election Day if Trump’s squadrons of unofficial volunteers were to hassle everyone they perceive as looking like an immigrant. By 2012, more than 18 million registered voters were either naturalized American citizens or the children of immigrants who arrived after 1965, according to the American Immigration Council’s analysis of Census data. That was about one out of every eight registered voters.

And sorry, would-be ballot police: Language profiling won’t help either. Millions of immigrants and US-born Americans qualify for assistance under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates the provision of bilingual voting information for most Latinos, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Alaskan Natives whose English isn’t proficient.

The timing for this vigilantism couldn’t be worse. Following the Supreme Court ruling that gutted key Voting Rights Act provisions the Justice Department may fail to dispatch enough federal election observers. Concerned over enforcement shortcomings, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and other organizations are being proactive about calling out local governments that fail to comply with voting rights laws.

For now, Trump seems most interested in recruiting poll watchers in a state far from the Rio Grande: Pennsylvania.

“I hope you people can sort of not just vote on the 8th [but] go around and look and watch other polling places and make sure that it’s 100 percent fine,” Trump told supporters in Altoona in August. “We’re going to watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study, make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.”

Trump revisited the theme in early October. “You’ve got to go out, and you’ve got to get your friends, and you’ve got to get everybody you know, and you gotta watch the polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas,” Trump said while stumping in Manheim, Pennsylvania. “I hear too many bad stories, and we can’t lose an election because of you know what I’m talking about.”

The Republican nominee never did spell out what he was talking about, leaving the rest of the world to guess at the motivation for zeroing in on Pennsylvania.

One good explanation is that its voting laws are especially vulnerable to exploitation. Pennsylvania also happens to be a deep-purple battleground state with 20 Electoral College votes (of the 270 required for a White House win) with a small but significant Latino population that now makes up 4.5 percent of all eligible voters. Given the crescendo of vote-rigging noise, some local officials there are taking pains to spell out things that ought to be obvious.

“Plain and simple, voter intimidation is illegal,” state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, a Democrat, wrote in a recent Sunbury, Pennsylvania Daily Item op-ed. “It includes, but is not limited to, the following: intimidating or coercing voters, threatening force, violence, injury, restraint, damage or loss to get a person to vote or not vote for a particular candidate or issue; or using abduction, duress, coercion or other forcible or fraudulent methods to interfere with a person’s right to vote.”

It would also help if someone could tell the Trumpistas that immigrants who become citizens are free to register and vote, regardless of their national origin, faith or ability to “speak American.”

Emily Schwartz Greco

Emily Schwartz Greco

Emily Schwartz Greco is a freelance writer and former managing editor of the OtherWords editorial service. She covered Latin America for the Bloomberg and Dow Jones news services. Follow her on Twitter: @ESGreco and learn more at ESGreco.com.

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