Since 1996, federal law has prevented non-citizen US residents, like myself, from voting in elections. We pay taxes, hold down jobs and own property, but don’t get a say in the leadership of the nation. This isn’t uncommon: in the UK, only Irish and Commonwealth citizens get to vote in the general election, on top of those already qualifying as British. But in the US, the discourse is polarised between citizens and illegal immigrants, with little discussion spared for the people caught somewhere in the middle.
And with just a day left in the race, President Obama has created another small furore – in certain circles – with his ambiguous statements about non-citizen voting. Actress Gina Rodriguez posed the question to Obama in an interview, saying that ‘undocumented citizens…are fearful of voting’. She also asked: ‘If I vote, will immigration know where I live? Will they come for my family and deport us?’ To this, Obama replied ‘when you vote, you are a citizen yourself’. Some media outlets have seen this as encouraging illegal voting.
The Trump-friendly media has wilfully misconstrued Rodriguez’s question, which was about the families of undocumented ‘citizens’ voting, rather than those illegal aliens themselves. But it cuts through to a profound fear in their campaign. Trump must keep minority voting low, yet his talk of walls and bans on Muslims has created an urgency in these communities that the Clinton campaign will use to get out the vote on Tuesday. In principal this shouldn’t be hard: she has an 83 per cent lead on Trump amongst blacks, and a 24 per cent lead among the generally more conservative Hispanic community.
Immigration is both a hot button topic and intensely partisan. The US is a country built on immigration and second-generation immigrants may well decide this election. There are huge numbers of citizens whose parents were lawful or undocumented non-citizens: only 63.7 per cent of Americans are now non-Hispanic whites, whilst 16.3 per cent are Hispanic or Latino. 35 million Americans speak Spanish as a primary language, and that’s enough to scare many conservatives out of their complacency.
But despite the Democrats being confident in their ability to secure black and Hispanic voters, they have traditionally struggled to get them to turn out in the required numbers. And Rodriguez taps into a key issue: undocumented immigrants are embedded in communities with lawful citizens and permanent residents, whose migratory status has been threatened in this election. For all the danger that a Trump presidency would pose them, there is a sense that committing to the electoral roll might pose even more at an individual level. For supporters of Donald Trump, this is an idea that they must be at pains to reinforce.
There are around 12.6 million lawful permanent residents of the US, many of who are on the path to citizenship. They constitute around 4 per cent of the total US population – not a huge amount, but in terms of total votes, that’s greater than the difference between Obama and Romney in 2012. And demographically, these lawful permanent residents, who are more likely to be college educated and professional, would turn out in greater numbers than the average American voter, if they could. But they can’t, and many will be anxious about their status: USCIS issues Green Cards for 10 years but with many conditions, and the US/Mexico border is particularly fierce in its scrutiny of permanent residents coming into the country. Not only are they not represented at the ballot box, but Green Card holders also spread anxiety into communities, which, in turn, stymies turn out.
For obvious reasons, it is harder to accurately quantify the number of illegal immigrants in the US, but the Department of Homeland Security estimates the number at around 11 million. That’s about 3.5 per cent of the total US population who face an uncertain future on a day-to-day basis, but will be biting their nails particularly hard this week.
The invisible Green Card caucus can make themselves heard in other ways. The Federal Election Commission forbids foreign contributions to political campaigns, but makes an exception for permanent residents. For illegal immigrants there is not even this peace. Whatever you may think about them, undocumented migrants need a result in this election more than anyone, yet they can only influence it negatively. That is a powerful weapon for Trump going into the final hours, as he looks to suppress minority votes in key battlegrounds.
After the American people have voted, what next for the US and the rest of the world? Join panellists including Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG, former British ambassador to the US, for a discussion chaired by Andrew Neil on 30 November at RIBA, London. Tickets include a drinks reception. In association with Seven Investment Management. Book now.