Proof-of-Citizenship Laws 'Disenfranchise' Asian Americans

Proof-of-Citizenship Laws 'Disenfranchise' Asian Americans

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Photo: Staff and volunteers from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fundon on National Voter Registration Day 2012.

After the 2012 elections, political leaders across the country recognized the Asian Pacific Islander community and its ability to influence local, state and national races. Yet in several states, legislatures have adopted laws that effectively disenfranchise members of these communities. 

Arizona, Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee, and Georgia – home to sizable and growing API and Latino communities -- now require voters to present documentary proof of U.S. citizenship. At least twelve other states are considering passing similar laws. 

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, involving a suit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund challenging Arizona’s proof of citizenship law.

The law is, on its face, patently absurd. There have been almost no documented incidents of non-citizens voting in U.S. elections.  All voter registration forms contain sufficient safeguards that prevent non-citizens from registering, including heavy fines and imprisonment.  Non-citizens who simply complete a voter registration form are subject to deportation. Who would take such a risk? 

For citizens, such laws make registration more onerous and segregate naturalized and native-born into two separate voter registration processes. While citizens born in the country are allowed to mail in copies of their birth certificates along with their voter registration applications, naturalized citizens must register in-person and bring their original naturalization certificates to the county registration offices.

Asian Americans are disproportionately affected by these laws. Almost 40 percent of Asian Americans in Arizona are foreign-born naturalized citizens, compared to only about 5 percent of white citizens in the state. 

Make no mistake about it; these laws are intended to disenfranchise minority voters.  States that have already adopted or are considering proof-of-citizenship laws, moreover, all have fast-growing Asian American populations that are outpacing the states’ total population growth rates. 

They also have histories of explicit anti-Asian discrimination. During WWII Arizona, like California, interred its Japanese resident population. Kansas’ Alien Land Law, which banned Asian immigrants from inheriting property, was only repealed in 2002. Georgia’s recent anti-immigrant legislation bars many young people from attending college.

Given these histories, the motivation behind laws that limit voting can only be seen as suspect.

After the 2012 election, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) conducted a 14-state, multilingual Election Protection study. In it, 249 voters complained that they were inappropriately required to prove their U.S. citizenship before being allowed to vote. In Georgia alone, the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center discovered that 282 voter registration applications were not processed because additional proof of citizenship was required. 

In the Arizona suit, AALDEF filed an amicus brief on behalf of 12 Asian American organizations that conduct voter registration drives in states with laws similar to Arizona’s or whose state legislatures are considering such laws. Naturalized citizens in these states will no longer be able to register at these drives, as a result of these laws.

Before Monday’s hearing Justices indicated that the National Voter Registration Act – adopted by Congress to eliminate state requirements that disenfranchise minority voters -- may indeed trump Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship law. 

As a nation, we should be encouraging voter participation, not curtailing it. The U.S. Supreme Court should strike down Arizona’s proof of citizenship law and send a strong message that this new type of voter suppression has no place in our democracy. 
Glenn D. Magpantay is Director of AALDEF’s Democracy Program. Founded in 1974, AALDEF is a national organization that works to protect and promote the civil rights of Asian Americans through litigation, advocacy, education, and organizing.