Undocumented Immigrants Can Vote in Some Elections. But ICE Could Keep Them Away.

The pros and cons of casting a ballot as a noncitizen.

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California has a track record of giving undocumented immigrants certain rights they wouldn’t have in most parts of the country: driver’s licenses, in-state college tuition, and, at least in San Francisco, a chance to vote.

But now, that same right to vote, celebrated when it passed via a city ballot measure less than two years ago, has become a source of anxiety for city leaders and the immigrants it is meant to serve. Some worry that federal immigration agents could use identifying information on public voter rolls to target those who are living in the Bay Area without the proper paperwork.

Back in November 2016, San Francisco became the first city in California, and one of the first in the nation, to allow undocumented immigrants to vote in school board elections. It was a huge victory for foreigners hoping to have more of a voice in their children’s education—at least 1 in 3 students in San Francisco’s public schools are believed to have an immigrant parent, many of whom are reportedly thought to be undocumented. “The only thing that put a damper on it was that Trump was elected as our president,” says Sandra Lee Fewer, a city supervisor who helped push for the ballot measure. “He has been so focused on voter fraud, on undocumented immigrants, and on sanctuary cities, which we are.”

The Trump administration has made an extra effort to target the undocumented immigrant population in California. In February, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested hundreds of immigrants in workplace raids in Northern California, and the agency’s director warned the state to “hold on tight.” On March 6, the Justice Department sued the state over its laws protecting undocumented immigrants from federal enforcement. “California’s sanctuary policies are illegal and unconstitutional and put the safety and security of our entire nation at risk,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday during a visit to San Diego to examine prototypes for border walls. “Thousands of dangerous & violent criminal aliens are released as a result of sanctuary policies, set free to prey on innocent Americans. THIS MUST STOP!” (Several studies have found that undocumented immigrants are less likely than other Americans to commit crimes.)

San Francisco’s next school board election will take place in November. The pool of eligible new voters will include noncitizen adults with children younger than 19 who live within the boundary of San Francisco’s Unified Public School District. Because these parents can’t vote in other local races, they’ll receive a separate ballot and will have to fill out a separate voter registration form, which will require them to list their address, as is standard practice, according to the city’s elections director, John Arntz.

Voter registration data is public—political candidates use it regularly during get-out-the-vote efforts. And law enforcement, including federal immigration officials, can access it. Which means that any of San Francisco’s 44,000 undocumented immigrants who register to vote will essentially be sharing their address with ICE.

According to ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley, the agency may use voter data “in support of ongoing criminal investigations or to aid in locating individuals who pose a national security risk or public safety threat,” though the agency doesn’t use it “to identify immigration enforcement targets.” But those assurances may do little to ease the concerns of immigrant advocates in San Francisco, where ICE has recently faced accusations from one of its own officials of peddling inaccuracies about its operations in California. “I quit because I didn’t want to perpetuate misleading facts,” the agency’s San Francisco spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle after resigning on March 12.

Opening up the vote to undocumented residents comes with a few other complications, says Norma P. Garcia of the Mission Economic Development Agency, a local community group that helps Latino immigrants. What if a noncitizen parent, unsure of the voting process, accidentally fills out the standard registration form that other San Franciscans use, rather than the one for noncitizens? The standard form prompts users to check a box verifying they are US citizens, and if a noncitizen parent does so, they would inadvertently be committing a crime—a deportable offense. And Garcia points out that during the naturalization process for green card holders, applicants are asked to affirm that they have never voted in a US election. San Francisco is considering creating a form that these green card holders can present during the application process to show they were legally allowed to vote, according to elections director Arntz.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is also considering legislation that would force the city to include a warning notice with its noncitizen voter registration forms, alerting these would-be voters that their information may be shared with the feds, Arntz says. That warning would be translated into dozens of languages that are spoken in the city’s public school district, says Hong Mei Pang of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a community group supporting the measure. 

Sandra Lee Fewer, the supervisor of District 1, is calling on the city to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars this year to educate noncitizen parents about the voting process. There’s some precedent for this: In the mid-2000s, San Francisco allocated funds to teach people about the city’s new ranked-choice voting system, hoping to avoid confusion at the polls. But if asked to approve a budget for voter outreach, Mayor Mark Farrell could be hard to convince this time: He opposed granting voting rights to noncitizens back in 2016.

San Francisco is not the only city to let undocumented immigrants cast a ballot. Many states allowed noncitizens to vote until the 1920s, when nativist impulses surged after World War I. In New York City, noncitizens could participate in school board races from 1969 until 2002, when the boards there were abolished. Chicago has let them cast ballots in school-related races since 1989, and some cities in Maryland have recently granted this right too. But San Francisco’s elections director says these jurisdictions did not face the same pressures his city does, given the Trump administration’s focus on California’s sanctuary policies. “The timing of this matters,” Arntz says.

For San Francisco’s immigrant parents, the decision to register could be tough. “There will be families that feel so strongly about this because they came to this country so their child could have access to a solid public education,” Fewer says. “To be able to be an active participant is really fulfilling the American Dream for them, and a step toward fulfilling the American Dream for their children.”