Feds Deport Immigrants for Meeting Civic Ideal Citizens Ignore

And conservatives latch onto it as belated proof of their long-standing claims of voter fraud.

By Seth Freed Wessler Oct 19, 2010

In an ironic twist, the New York Times reports that an untold number of green-card holding non-citizens have been pushed into deportation proceedings because they’ve voted in elections–that is, kicked out for carrying out what they believed to have been their civic duty, one which more than a third of citizens failed to meet in the last presidential election. 

Non-citizens, even those who are documented, are not permitted to vote in federal elections. And conservative groups, long known for trumpeting phantom voter fraud in urban neighborhoods, are spinning the issue as proof that, at last, they’ve found some.

The Times reports that the Legal Aid Society in New York has defended at least eight green card holders in the state who have been threatened with deportation after admitting to voting in elections when applying for citizenship. They are charged with making a false claim to U.S. citizenship, a charge that triggers automatic deportation. 

Olivia Cassin, a Legal Aid Society lawyer currently representing a West Indian man featured in the NYT story, told me in a follow up interview that voting does not mean that a non-citizen must be deported. Rather, immigration officers are determining summarily to do so. 

In 2002, federal officials issued a memo laying out broad discretion for deportation officers to decide whether to deport people found guilty of illegally voting. But Cassin says these guidelines still "have not reached the people on the ground. They were not aware of this memo until we told them about it. Not aware or they are disregarding it."

Legal Aid has successfully stopped the deportation of a number of people, but Cassin says that there are surely countless more who are not lucky enough to end up with representation and are deported. Speaking of one elderly woman whose deportation was canceled as result of Legal Aid Society representation, Cassin says, "had we not been representing her, she would have been deported."

The practice is one of many that point to the Obama administration’s commitment to deporting a record number of people. In this case, the illegal voting charges are pushing people who are explicitly committed to becoming active citizens into the deportation process. Many vote because they think they’re supposed to. The Times tells the story of Joseph Joseph, Cassin’s 53-year-old client, who told the paper that he was approached by voter registration volunteers in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, in 1992 and that when he said he was a legal resident, "They said that if I’m paying taxes, I have a right to vote."

The immigration system does not seem to actively explain the voting rights of non-citizens when immigrants apply for green cards. The New York Times reports:

William G. Wright, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency did not provide "specific information on voting rights" when granting green cards. But he pointed out that voter registration forms explain that an applicant must be an American citizen.

Immigrants and their advocates, however, say there is widespread confusion, even among native-born Americans, about who is allowed to vote. Volunteers, whether working for political parties or nonpartisan causes, sometimes give incorrect advice when registering new voters.

Confusing matters, permanent residents are permitted to vote in some municipalities, though not in New York City. And elections officials around the country do not customarily verify the citizenship of newly registered voters. Arizona is the only state that requires proof of citizenship; Georgia passed a similar law, which has not taken effect.

Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation, a staunchly conservative think tank, has tried to get voter fraud milage out of the issue. The Times reports:

Some groups, including the Heritage Foundation, contend that illegal voting by immigrants may be more widespread than anyone realizes. They say it disenfranchises legal voters and warrants tougher enforcement.

The paper of record goes on to unwittingly quote the research of the Heritage Foundation’s voting rights "expert," Hans von Spakovsky, who’s tenure as a political appointee in the Bush-era Justice Department rivals any in level of controversy–which is saying a great deal. Von Spakovsky’s specialty is advising Republicans on making illegal voter-roll purges look legal, among other suppression tactics. Career attorneys in the civil rights division complained in a letter to Congress that von Spakovsky bullied and circumvented them regularly, calling him the Bush team’s "point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division’s mandate to protect voting right." He was so controversial, in fact, then-Sen. Barack Obama put a successful hold on his nomination to serve on the FEC. He now writes "research" papers, which the New York Times cites without qualification, for the Heritage Foundation. 

Having failed to find a single meaningful example of fraud in the black districts in which Republicans have actively worked to suppress the vote since 2000, movement conservatives are apparently turning their attention to the growing Latino vote.