‘Kiss of death’: Advocates warn Democrats’ voting bill could harm immigrants

Interesting possible collateral impact:

Some immigration lawyers and progressives warn that a provision in Democrats’ sweeping voting-rights legislation risks inadvertently harming immigrants if it becomes law.

Their concerns reflect a debate among progressives about whether to amend the bill, and they have created tension between two of the party’s priorities — maximizing access to the ballot box and supporting immigration — as the Democratic-controlled Senate returns from recess this week and debates it.

Democrats who wrote the House-passed For the People Act want to require states to automatically register people to vote at times like when they apply for driver’s licenses or state identification — unless they opt out.

Some immigration lawyers are sounding an alarm, arguing that the measure could mistakenly register people who are legally in the country on work visas or green cards. That could subject them to grave consequences, like being deported or permanently banned from gaining citizenship.

Noncitizens wouldn’t have to intend to register, and they could be punished even if they never tried to vote. They could check the wrong box on a form or misunderstand a DMV clerk’s question about their legal status and face serious consequences.

“A false claim to U.S. citizenship is what we call the kiss of death. It is a permanent black mark that prevents a noncitizen from ever gaining status,” said Gloria Contreras Edin, an immigration lawyer based in Minnesota. “With the HR1 automatic voter registration system, the risk is there’s a strong possibility that there will be unintentional violation of that immigration law.”

Federal law is strict: It is a crime for a noncitizen to falsely claim citizenship in pursuit of benefits such as registering to vote. There are serious consequences even for honest mistakes. A person who does vote could go to jail.

“Ignorance isn’t necessarily a defense,” Contreras Edin said. “The proposed plan is likely to harm noncitizens. It could permanently bar lawful permanent residents who have been here for 20 or 30 years, working and paying taxes, who have their whole lives here.”

As the Senate reviews the legislation, immigration lawyers like Contreras Edin, as well as some election law experts and progressive strategists, are urging Democrats in private memos and conversations to make changes. They want to modify the “front end” automatic registration to a “back end” system that requires factoring in citizenship documentation before triggering registration.

The progressive community, which overwhelmingly agrees on the need for automatic voter registration, is debating how best to structure the measure to maximize effectiveness, reduce harm to immigrants and defend against political vulnerabilities.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which claims credit for helping develop the bill, said it takes protecting vulnerable communities “very seriously” and argued that the legislation would shield noncitizens because it would apply only to applicants who are “affirming United States citizenship.”

“It doesn’t get down to the details of when and how agencies filter ineligible people out of the system, in part because when and how that happens depends on the agency and the information they are presented,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, a deputy director of the Brennan Center. “It is not the case that the For the People Act delineates the details of how that happens.”

Morales-Doyle said that more than a dozen states have adopted front-end automatic registration systems and that he’s not aware of any instances when a noncitizen was added to the rolls.

The automatic voter registration language is backed by the Latino advocacy group NALEO and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, among others, according to a March 24 letter.

‘Underestimating the political vulnerability’

The disagreement boils down to how strong the citizenship verification ought to be. And that creates tension: The stricter it is, the more hurdles it creates to register people, but the more it defers to agencies, the more room there is for error.

Some progressives argue that if Democrats enact a law that registers ineligible people, they risk fueling Republican criticism that they don’t care about secure elections.

Source: ‘Kiss of death’: Advocates warn Democrats’ voting bill could harm immigrants

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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