Coordinated Effort to Disenfranchise Latinos Now Underway

By: Judith Browne Dianis and Penda D. Hair, co-directors

This blog orginally appeared in The Hill's Congress Blog.

More than any other nation, America today represents liberty and opportunity. Upon this, leaders of both political parties eagerly agree. For evidence, we need look no further than the past decade, when the United States set a record with the arrival of nearly 14 million immigrants, the majority of whom are Latino.

The lure of liberty has long been a powerful draw for millions of immigrants to America, and immense pride is a mainstay during naturalized citizenship ceremonies throughout the nation. Aside from the Native Americans and those brought here against their will, we are a nation of immigrants.

This year, however, as all Americans prepare to exercise the basic and precious freedom of voting in the November, many new citizens are discovering that liberty, in the minds of some lawmakers, has its limits.

That’s the message sent to Florida resident and naturalized citizen Karla Vanessa Arcia earlier this year when her name was wrongly placed on a list of ineligible voters. Miami-Dade County’s supervisor of elections sent Arcia a letter, giving her 30 days to prove her citizenship and residency. This list, developed to identify non-citizens, erroneously included many eligible voters who are Latino. Florida’s flawed purge list showed that liberty, at least as exercised at the polling booth, was far less secure than it should be.

In 2010, Latino citizens represented more than 10 percent of the country’s eligible voters and eight percent of registered voters. However, of 21.3 million eligible Latino voters, more than 14.5 million were either unregistered or did not vote in 2010. An estimated additional 3.7 million Latinos were to become eligible to become naturalized citizens since 2010.

Arcia was a plaintiff in Advancement Project’s lawsuit against the State of Florida challenging the purge list, but she is by no means alone as a victim of a national trend that has seen 23 states erect legislative and regulatory barriers that disproportionately affect Latino voters. (The Florida suit was partially dropped earlier this month after the state agreed to inform every eligible voter on its list that they were indeed able to vote.)

Arcia’s ordeal is just one example in a troubling trend of new barriers to voting that disproportionately affect Latinos. According to a new Advancement Project report, as many as 10 million Latinos could be disenfranchised in the 2012 general election as a result of the new restrictions that place a chill on voter registration and Latino voter participation.

A nation embracing its cherished freedoms and liberties would embrace all of its citizens, including the newest Americans, and encourage full participation in the electoral process. The result, no matter the outcome of any particular election, would be a thriving democracy and an example for the world. But lawmakers pushing the new restrictive laws and regulations have had a different reaction to the specter of increased participation from Latinos.

Their response has been a coordinated onslaught intended to lessen participation by Latinos. The purge lists targets naturalized citizens in 16 states.  Another four states – Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and Tennessee – have instituted additional proof of citizenship requirements. And nine states have adopted extremely restrictive voter ID laws, which also have a disproportionate effect on Latinos and other eligible voters of color as the additional documentation and costs introduce additional barriers to voting.

Last month in Texas, a federal appellate court did what the state’s elected leaders could not: recognize the new voter ID law disastrous potential and halt it. In striking down the state’s voter ID law, the court unanimously ruled the new restrictions placed “strict unforgiving burdens on the poor” and the state’s arguments in defense of the law were “unpersuasive, invalid, or both.”
In Texas, liberty and decency were protected by a three-judge panel.  And while that process can serve as a civics lesson, it does not exemplify a full-throated commitment by elected officials to the right of every citizen to freely exercise their right to vote.

Like citizenship ceremonies, John F. Kennedy’s words on immigrants to the U.S. were once a source of inspiration across the nation and among both political parties. “Every ethnic minority, in seeking its own freedom, helped strengthen the fabric of liberty in American life. Similarly, every aspect of the American economy has profited from the contributions of immigrants,” he wrote 54 years ago in A Nation of Immigrants.

The statement is no less true today. The question now is whether America’s politicians are willing to weaken that fabric and the contributions of its immigrants in order to win an election?