"Kiss of death": Dems' voting-reform bill could torpedo immigrants' hopes of citizenship

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The law of unintended consequences strikes again, and in its usual location — Capitol Hill. Among Democrats’ legislative pushes in 2021, federalizing elections and rolling back immigration restrictions and security are in their top priority tier. However, the two are about to come into serious conflict, NBC News reports.

In their haste to force automatic registration of voters, they might end up torpedoing immigrants’ chances for citizenship — even for legal immigrants:

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.”

Legislate in haste, repent at leisure. This isn’t a strong possibility — it’s all but certain to happen, perhaps even frequently. House Democrats have marinated in these issues. Did none of them bother to ask what impact automatic registration might have on immigrants before now?

It also speaks to competence that this got out to the media before Democrats fixed the problem. These activists wouldn’t have gone first to the media to address these issues, after all. They’re used to getting access to progressive leaders on Capitol Hill. Why didn’t Democrats pull this out of the package before the issue became so public?

This also points out why Congress should avoid legislating voting procedures for states. It’s not within their competence, to use the term in another sense. States have run elections ever since the founding of the republic, and while there have been plenty of examples of incompetence and worse in that history, there is also the accountability and subsidiarity necessary to deal with the situation. The more that Congress pulls these issues into its own aegis, the less accountability and adaptation can work to resolve problems.

This competence problem, in both forms, threatens the progressive grasp on electoral issues that they have recently claimed, NBC also reports:

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.

“We as progressives could lose the upper hand in talking about election integrity and access to the ballot for a generation,” said a progressive strategist with deep roots in the voting rights community. “If ineligible voters — if green card holders and others — end up on the rolls, that gives Republicans and those who are trying to ruin voting rights the ammunition that they need.”

That’s certainly one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is that it will prove Republicans and conservatives correct in their criticisms. Shouldn’t that be the concern rather than potential Republican “pouncing”?