How the "waiting game" suppresses South Asian voters

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 7:09pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

In early December, The South Asian Awareness Network, a student organization on campus, provided me the opportunity to meet Ranjeev Puri— a Democratic candidate running for State Representative for Michigan House 21. This was the first time I had ever met a South Asian running for a political position, although I knew of a few nationally such as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Teeming with eagerness, I went on to ask him a few questions, picking his brain about South Asians in government and topics like civic participation and education.

Ranjeev spoke at length about his background growing up in Wisconsin as a second-generation American and his work for former President Barack Obama in 2012. Yet, what I remember most was when he noted that South Asians have not historically been a large part of the political atmosphere in the United States. He left that day encouraging us to fulfill our civic duty and inspired me to think more about the South Asian community from a historical perspective.

While I believe there is certainly a culture of passivity within the South Asian community when it comes to civic engagement, I also believe that there are certain systemic barriers that have decreased the civic participation of immigrants in subtle ways. Many of us know of the typical forms of voter suppression, including gerrymandering districts, strict voter-ID laws and even purging voters. But, I believe there is additional widespread voter suppression by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which currently has an immense backlog of applications for legal residence and naturalization applications.

Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen after they fulfill the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act. According to Boundless Immigration, “the processing time for a citizenship application has surged over the past two years to over 10 months—double the processing time between 2012 and 2016.” This is expected to continue to rise as the government continues to keep their processing efficiency stays at an incredibly low level. On top of this, there are steep application fees for naturalization — becoming a citizen — such as civics and English tests which must be completed. In lieu, many instead decide to renew their permanent residency for 10 more years and avoid risking hundreds of dollars just to be denied citizenship.

To give a local context, The University of Southern California-Dornsife Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration provides data on the number of people eligible to naturalize in the United States. In Washtenaw County, they estimate that there are 8,458 lawful permanent residents, or “green card” holders, who are eligible to apply for citizenship. Of this population, about 54 percent of lawful permanent residents in Washtenaw County identify as Asian.

According to the database, if naturalized, these individuals would make up roughly 3.3 percent of the citizen voting age population. This means close to 1 out of every 25 voters is being denied their constitutional right to engage in our democracy in Washtenaw County.

The “waiting game” and the subsequent pressure of the unknown not only holds South Asians back from being civically engaged, but also inhibits them from pursuing certain jobs, scholarships and loans. The USCIS’s shift from openly accepting immigrants to increasingly closing its doors has left many with little ground to politically defend their rights. Immigrants cannot fight alone.

With the 2020 Michigan Primaries approaching on August 4, it is more important now than ever for people to use their civic privilege to elect morally sound U.S. Congress members and state legislators, as well as local prosecuting attorneys, sheriffs, clerks, treasurers, registers of deeds, county commissioners and city council members who will advocate for the rights of all immigrants in this country. Until there are structural changes to these processes, one thing is clear: Those who can vote must do so, not just for themselves but for those that cannot under the laws of the nation. 

For more information regarding voting in the state of Michigan, please visit https://www.vote.org/state/michigan/.

Aakash Ray can be contacted at aaray@umich.edu