Op-Ed: Undocumented Californians have a lot to lose, but they can’t sway the recall

Originally Published in The Los Angeles Times

Opinion by Jose Antonio Vargas – September 13, 2021

A voter drops a ballot into a box.
Advance voting and drop-off sites have helped many Californians participate in recent elections, but one group of more than 2 million is still excluded.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

After flipping through the voter information guide that was mailed to my home a few weeks ago, I started counting up the pivotal elections I’ve witnessed firsthand but could not participate in.

The recall campaign against Gov. Gray Davis. The elections of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. All the local and state elections in all the cities where I’ve lived, from Washington to New York City to Los Angeles to Berkeley, my current home.

In my 28 years living as an undocumented immigrant in the United States — where I graduated from public schools, where I’ve built a career, where I pay all kinds of taxes (and, yes, the Internal Revenue Service is more than willing to collect them) — I’ve never voted in an election.

The California recall election is a reminder of the paradox, at once heartbreaking and numbing, that undocumented immigrants find ourselves in: Even though we are an integral part of California, we are mere bystanders, relegated to the sidelines while voters decide the fate of our state. And when you’re undocumented, the fate of the state and the basic conditions of your life are often inescapable.

Can we keep driving legally? California is one of only 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allows its undocumented residents to apply for driver’s licenses.

Can low-income undocumented residents age 50 and up qualify for state-funded healthcare? This summer, California followed Illinois in expanding healthcare for older members of its undocumented population. Federal law bars using U.S. tax dollars to provide coverage for immigrants who are in the country without authorization.

Can undocumented students continue to pay in-state tuition rates? When Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of legislation making college more equitable in 2011, California joined 20 other states in helping secure a more affordable education for undocumented youth.

California is home to the country’s largest undocumented population, sitting somewhere between 2.3 and 2.6 million, according to Public Policy Institute of California. Approximately 1 in 10 workers in California is an undocumented immigrant.

According to CALFIRE, 2020 was the largest wildfire season in California’s modern history, with 4.1 million acres set ablaze. Now, in 2021, we are in the middle of the third driest year on record with water restrictions likely to come later this…

Undocumented Californians live among documented relatives who are U.S.-born citizens, naturalized Americans or legal permanent residents. Among my large but tight-knit extended Filipino American family of almost 30 people, I am the only one who is undocumented. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks checking in with everyone who is eligible to vote, making sure they’ve either mailed in their ballots or are planning to show up at their polls Tuesday. I encourage everyone to vote against the recall.

“Peton,” said one of my uncles, using my Tagalog nickname. “I don’t like Newsom. Have you listened to this Larry guy?”

My uncle is a lifelong registered Republican and gets most of his information – and misinformation – from Fox News. To my dismay, he voted for Donald Trump twice, one of many Filipino Americans who were drawn to that campaign.

I listed for my uncle many reasons that Larry Elder, the talk radio host who leads the field of 46 replacement candidates, is unqualified to be governor. Elder would take away my driver’s license, I pointed out. If Elder had the power to change federal policy, U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants, whom he prefers to call “illegal aliens,” wouldn’t be considered citizens. They’d be something else, something less, something not American. My uncle responded with silence. After I explained what Newsom has done for immigrants, he said: “I won’t vote for Elder. But I’ll just stay home.”

Though most recent polls are predicting a decisive win against the recall and keeping Newsom as governor, I wonder how reliable these polls are, and whether they are capturing the complicated political reality of Latino and Asian voters, a growing part of the state’s electorate, and where they fit in the conservative-liberal binary. I wonder how many voters like my uncle will decide not to participate. And I wonder what role California’s undocumented residents would have if we had the privilege to vote.

It’s painful, this severance between ourselves and the government that our hard-earned tax dollars help fund. In the early days of the pandemic, when it became clear that undocumented workers were deemed “essential,” many felt that society thinks of the undocumented population as labor, but not necessarily as people. If your vote is your voice, as the adage goes, then surely undocumented people are human beings deserving to be heard, guaranteed a voice in civic life.

President Lyndon Johnson once said that “a man without a vote is a man without protection.”

For decades now, I’ve felt unprotected in my own country.

Jose Antonio Vargas is the founder of Define American, a nonprofit media organization, and the author of “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.”

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