On Tuesday millions of Americans went to the polls to exercise one of their basic rights as citizens of our country. They voted in municipal elections, and in Minneapolis, Minnesota we selected our Mayor, City Council and Park Board Commissioner. As usual, I voted before heading into the office and wore my red “I Voted” sticker with pride all day. However, this year I did so knowing I truly had the right to do so. “Why is that?” you may ask. In September, I came out of the ranks of the “Undocumented”. Years of second guessing my status and fears of the “What Ifs” were finally put to rest when I received my Certificate of Citizenship or N560 from USCIS – otherwise known as United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Let me explain – I was not born in the physical United States but in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. My mother was born in Minneapolis but was adopted by a paternal aunt and was raised in Winnipeg where she eventually had four children there. Shortly after the death of her adoptive mother and my grandmother, she packed us up and retuned to Minneapolis – the home of her maternal family. I was the oldest child at ten years old and in the fifth grade. On a side note I will say our arrival has always been a kind of homecoming for me as we had no other family in Winnipeg. Because she was a US citizen with a valid passport and we were her children, there was no question about our right to be with our mother. I think it was assumed that we, like our mother, were US Citizens. It would be more than ten years later and a few years after my mother’s death that we would find out otherwise. Not that we were here illegally or weren’t citizens but that we did not have the documentation to prove it.
I was a college student in my early twenties when my little sister called me to say, “I got bad news”. My Aunt, who was the custodian for my baby brother and sister, had attempted to obtain replacement Social Security cards for them and discovered that our Social Security records did not contain a citizenship marker. It appears that when our mother applied for our numbers she did not have documents establishing our US Citizenship. My baby sister, who was a teen Mom, lost her eligibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) or welfare. The federal cash assistance, medical and food stamps she received were cut off and replaced with similar state programs. Working through a lawyer with USCIS’s predecessor – Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) – my Aunt applied to have my minor brother and sister established as Resident Aliens and eventually Permanent Residents.
The real bad news was that my little sister I, a student in Wisconsin receiving financial aid at the time, could find ourselves in a similar situations – cut off from the federal funds that we depended on for our basic support. What did we do? The same as other undocumented people: we kept it to ourselves and continued on with our valid social security cards and numbers in hand. As young adults we were already on our own and did not have the resources to pay the hefty application fees required by INS or to see us through the likely loss of our means of support. When I finally did submit my N600 application last fall the fee was $600 and it almost doubled to $1170 last December. If your application is denied you do not get a refund nor is the amount applied to any subsequent application fees. My fears of the worst-case scenarios kept me in the shadows. Numerous consultations with immigration attorneys all ended the same way – with a rundown of the penalties for claiming to be a citizen when you, in fact, are not.
I share my story because it seems that most people want to believe the undocumented to be “Illegal Aliens” without the right to be here. In fact, I have been called that more than once and have had to assert that I did not come here illegally and that I claimed citizenship through my mother. For others like myself who were brought into the United States as children, we had no control over these circumstances but did the same as other immigrant children – began to assimilate and live our lives as citizens. Initially for me that meant learning the Pledge of Allegiance. By 5th grade most American students already know it and have a basic understanding of the right to franchise and the requirement of jury duty. I was able to understand at 10 years old that citizenship, voting and the political process were all tied to together.
I was 13 and in the 8th Grade when President Reagan was elected in 1980. We followed the campaign and election in my Social Studies class utilizing the local daily newspaper. I remember it well because my state was blue in a sea of red on the final election map. It was also my first in depth lesson about the political process. I also learned about the legal disenfranchisement that occurred after the Reconstruction Era which paved the way for Jim Crow laws to dominate in the South. I was shocked then as much as I am dismayed now to learn and know that there are eligible voters who choose not to exercise their franchise right.
I’m not referring to those that have been systematically disenfranchised such as felons or those subject to Photo ID laws or others who have tangible obstacles related to voting such as homelessness or physical impairment issues. I’m talking about those folks that claim, “My vote is wasted” and purposely choose not to participate. To that I say, “It’s not wasted, you left it on the table – You threw it away!” Gone are the days when women and non-white men are not allowed to participate. Gone are poll and property taxes as well as literacy tests and grandfather clauses to determine eligibility. The laws that govern almost all aspects of our daily lives are determined by elected officials. ELECTED by those of us that do vote. To quote Rubia Garcia, A Louisiana social studies teacher and Facebook user who talks politics using #teacherlyfe, “They work for us!” While she is very vocal in her political views she always teaches something about our political history and thus reminds her viewers that our government was created “By the people, for the people” and that collectively we can change any law or aspect of our government by involving ourselves in the process.
It is that aspect of the political process that astounds me when contemplating the fact that there are folks who choose not to vote. If a candidate or elected official does not have its constituent’s interest at heart you can vote for and elect someone who does. It is that simple. There really is power in numbers and not just dollars. While the National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of the largest lobby groups in the United States, I believe the most powerful lobbying group is in fact the American People. I think a lot of people have lost sight of that and have become disheartened by the political process enough to drop out. I’ve been a registered voter in every precinct I’ve lived in for 32 years and can only recall one election where I did not vote, and I admit that with shame. It was a shame because there are people who risk life and limb to enter our borders, want life under a Democratic government after leaving patriarchal and autocrat societies, and who are willing become criminals by choosing to stay. Regardless of our current political climate, there aren’t many Americans who would want to trade places with any of the myriad of folks who are refuges or are seeking asylum within our borders. It is shameful that there is anyone who would disdain the very tenant that makes our society so attractive to others – the right to vote.