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Why Can’t Legal Immigrants Vote in Most of America?

As midterm elections loom and anti-immigration rhetoric swells, The New York Times reports on the unfortunate trend of immigrants who register to vote and then face deportation charges for it. It’s against the law for non-citizens to claim citizenship — even if they have a green card — so when legal residents register to vote they can face losing their right to remain in the country. The problem is that many did not realize they were actually breaking a low, often assuming they were simply participating in a key element of American life, the Times reported:

Advocates for immigrants said that in most cases, those who violated the voting law did so unwittingly.

“It really annoys me that they’re just trying to do their civic duty for no pecuniary gain at all, yet they wind up in removal proceedings,” said Jeffrey N. Brauwerman, a lawyer in Coral Gables, Fla., and a former immigration judge, who has represented four immigrants that the government tried to deport for registering to vote.

Under current policy, only U.S. citizens are able to vote in most of the country. Only six Maryland municipalities allow non-citizens to vote in city elections, while Chicago allows non-citizens to vote in city school elections, a political science professor told the Boston Globe. This was not always the case: Most states allowed originally allowed non-citizens to vote, but began to restrict voting as more people moved to the country. The first states to remove voting rights for legal residents, New York and Massachusetts, did so because they feared French radicals moving to the U.S. after the French revolution.

Despite the laws, some state lawmakers are concerned non-citizens are trying to vote anyway. In Colorado, state Rep. Ted Harvey (R) is pushing for legislation that would require voters to prove citizenship when they register by bringing either a passport or birth certificate. His plan was bolstered last week, when the Denver Post reported that nearly 12,000 registered voters failed to check a box affirming they were U.S. citizens when they registered to vote — which could have been either an error or an admission they were not legally allowed to vote.

“The federal government has proven they are incapable of protecting our borders and we are being flooded by people who should not be here,” Harvey told TWI. “On 9/11, some of the attackers had valid government documentation that they used to get on planes. I want to ensure that our government documents are valid and going to only people who should get them.”

At the other end of the spectrum, a few cities are pushing to allow some legal immigrants to vote. In Portland, Maine, the League of Young Voters gathered votes to put an amendment providing voting rights to legal residents on the ballot in November. The amendment would allow immigrants with green cards to vote in municipal elections so they could have a voice on issues that affect their taxes. A few cities in Massachusetts have passed similar efforts previously, and San Francisco politicians have proposed allowing all parents of public school children — legal or not — to vote in school elections.

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