As the Senate approaches its final hours in a push to bring millions of immigrants into the American polity, millions of citizens are being pushed out of it. What does the gutting of the Voting Rights Act mean for newly legalized immigrants?
Assuming that immigration reform passes into law, it will take well over a decade for immigrants who gain legal status through the bill to become eligible for citizenship. Many may ever naturalize, due to the prohibitively high cost of applying for citizenship. The more difficult you make it for someone to naturalize, implicitly, the more difficult you are making it for someone to vote—thus, from one perspective, restrictive immigration is already a form of voter suppression. Now faced with even more threats to minority voting power, in the forms of Voter ID and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the immigrants who do manage to naturalize may have to wait even longer for their vote to matter, or matter nearly as much as it should.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court invalidated Section Four of the Voting Rights Act, which establishes the criteria for Section Five. Sections Four and Five govern states that have a history of discriminatory laws against minority voters. States or lower levels of government subjected to Section Five are required to submit changes to their voting laws to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance. Without the protections of Sections Four and Five, states with horrifying histories of voter suppression, predominantly in the South, will be able to draw their electoral districts with minimal concern for the effect it will have on the minority voters within them. As well, the pre-clearance requirement provided the states under its jurisdiction an added layer of protection from Voter ID. The attorney general of Texas announced that the state’s strict identification requirements would go into effect immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision. Similarly, a Republican North Carolina senator said that plans to overhaul that state’s laws would move forward as a result of the ruling.
Earlier this year, Justice Antonin Scalia said that the Voting Rights Act was motivated by “racial entitlement,” a subject Scalia had written about early on in his career. In a sense, he’s right—all citizens are entitled to a vote—one that means as much as anyone else’s vote—and the Voting Rights Act ensured that all people, no matter their race, were able to use it.
In 2006, Congress unequivocally extended the life of the Voting Rights Act by a vote of 390-33. The decision in the Senate to do the same was unanimous, 98-0. Yet the Supreme Court—in what could be a conservative textbook definition of “judicial activism”—decided to countermand that decision. There will be no right-wing hand-wringing over the decision, because it’s exactly what was needed to prevent people of color from asserting themselves through the political system.
Kris Kobach, counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute and the author of the notorious SB 1070, is also a proponent of one of the most stringent Voter ID law yet. There is a reason that ideologues like Kris Kobach pay attention to both voting rights and immigration—it preserves political power for those who have historically had it. Anti-immigrant demands to undermine birthright citizenship have carried with them horrendous implications for civil rights protections, which are legally grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment.
If anything is to be learned from seeing these two battles play out at the same time, it’s that they are really one in the same. While promoters of Voter ID laws, or repealing the Voting Rights Act or the Fourteenth Amendment have used undocumented immigrants as justification for undermining the constitutional rights of all underprivileged groups, right now, we are able to see clearly that the threats are meant to achieve the same end result.
Those who have worked so hard to advance the cause of immigration reform have an obvious reason to join the fight for voting rights: we want today’s immigrants to be tomorrow’s voters. Yesterday should be a wake-up call to everyone working for a path to citizenship—we want the right to vote to be waiting at the end of it.