Give Noncitizens the Right to Vote

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Please don’t mince words. The Trump administration is keeping the president’s campaign promise. The administration is proceeding, quietly, to remove undocumented immigrants en masse, even those brought to the U.S. as kids, those owning businesses and property, those married to Americans with American kids, and those who have earned the right to be called a citizen.

In another time, the story of a national government separating people from their children, property, and constitutional liberties would be a story of brute tyranny. In another place, conservative Republicans in Washington might be first in line to battle such clear evil.

This is not that time—this is not that place.

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed a Michigan man living there for more than 30 years. Jorge Garcia’s relatives brought him from Mexico when he was 10. He has no criminal record. His wife and two children are Americans. He can’t come back for a decade. His wife, Cindy Garcia, told CBS News: “We did not want to let him go. We said our goodbyes, we told him we love you, we’re going to miss you, but you don’t want to let someone go that you love. It’s very hard.”

Also last week, ICE raided 100 convenient stories in 18 states to arrest 21 people suspected of residing here illegally. The raid doubled as a threat to business owners—it sent “a strong message to U.S. businesses that hire and employ an illegal workforce: ICE will enforce the law, and if you are found to be breaking the law, you will be held accountable,” said Tom Homan, deputy ICE director.

It was not an empty threat. ICE arrested, and plans to deport, Al Adi Othman, a small business owner in Youngtown, Ohio. His wife, Fidda Musleh, told an NBC affiliate: “Why would you trick us to say he has a stay, get us here, just to put him behind bars? What’s the reason behind it? Was he a threat to anybody? They have no answers.” Tim Ryan, his Democratic Congressman, said: “This is absolutely insane. He would have bought a ticket and packed his bags. He would have left. They put him jail. They’re treating him like an animal.”

Even citizenship can’t protect immigrants. The Justice Department launched Operation Janus, which seeks to “denaturalize” people using aliases to obtain legal status. The project dates back to 2008, but the first person stripped of citizenship was an Indian native named Baljinder Singh who arrived in 1992 and lost his citizenship earlier this month. He married an American and applied for citizenship under the name Davinder Singh, but did not disclosed an older order to leave. A judge reduced his status to lawful permanent resident, but Singh could still be removed later.

You could say, well, Singh should have followed the rules. No doubt, but his story differs little from Melania Trump’s. The first lady arrived two decades ago and worked for a brief time without documentation. She was an illegal alien, as it were. Is ICE coming for the president’s wife? No. Indeed, if citizenship can’t protect you from deportation, one thing will: white skin.

What can be done? Along with the obvious channels of action, we should expand, enrich and deepen the meaning of citizenship. If your citizenship can be stripped because you didn’t use the right first name, citizenship becomes as arbitrary as being born with white skin.

Indeed, our current conception of citizenship is too narrow, and because it is so narrow, we take seriously what should be illegitimate concerns about voter fraud. But it used to be much broader, specifically in that noncitizens used to be able to vote. Until the 1920s, many states and localities permitted noncitizens to vote in all elections. The idea was simple: if you lived in America, you had a stake in America. If you had a stake in America, then you have a right to vote. It was not tied to birthplace. It was tied to where you resided, a concept in keeping with the goals of the 14th Amendment.

If noncitizens once had that right, they can have it again—in fact, they are winning that right in places like San Francisco. And if they had voting rights, we might not be witnessing the brute tyranny of a national government tearing families apart while Republicans stand idly by. Indeed, it probably wouldn’t happen, because noncitizens and other voters would never permit the election of a president who is so keen on restoring America’s whiteness.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.