Immigrant Voting: Not a Crazy Idea

Until the 1920s, many states and territories allowed non-citizens to cast ballots. Given their role in American society, it's worth reconsidering the practice.

Daniel Weeks

CHAPARRAL, N.M. — You just can't get there from here. Not by bus, at least.

I learn that lesson the hard way when setting out to visit the unincorporated colonia of Chaparral, situated in a dusty basin on the Texas-New Mexico line behind a wall of 6,000-footers known as the Franklin Mountains. I've read a thing or two about voting irregularities in Chaparral in 2012 and figure it's worth a minor detour off the Greyhound route during my winter swing through the Southwestern United States. Minor detour indeed.

When my attempts to locate a public bus to Chaparral come up dry, I set my sights on the nearby city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, some 35 miles northwest. According to Google, there's a Greyhound station downtown where I can transfer to the state-run Gold Route bus headed south to El Paso. If I catch the morning bus, and if the driver makes his promised stop along Interstate 10 in the town of Anthony, I'll stick up my thumb or leg it the last 12 miles along the Ohara Road to Chaparral. God willing, I'll arrive before nightfall, when desert temperatures drop.

As it happens, Google and Greyhound aren't exactly in sync. When my overnight bus to Las Cruces pulls up outside of Chucky's Convenience Store eight miles north of the city, I figure we must be one more stop away. "Nope," says the driver, showing me the door. "Changed to this location a couple of months ago—for convenience." No matter that all you can see for miles around are pecan orchards and the occasional mobile home; Chucky's is as far as my ticket will go.

With no chance of catching a bus or taxi into town, I tie my shoelaces, hoist my pack, and begin the three-hour trudge along the sandy shoulder of El Camino Real. So much for catching the morning bus from Las Cruces to Anthony and reaching Chaparral that night.

By the time I approach downtown Las Cruces, the winter sun is high in the sky and I've nearly exhausted my daily supply of bread and nuts. Fortunately, while plying the empty road into town, I manage to reach Mariaelena Johnson by phone. She's with a local faith-based organization whose name and number I came across in my research on Chaparral. As luck would have it, she is free that afternoon and agrees to show me around the colonia, where she grew up. She even offers to put me up with her parents, Andy and Maria, in Chaparral—easily the best piece of news I've heard all week. After three consecutive nights of fitful sleep on the bus, I'm ready for a home-cooked meal and a bed. The meal I will later enjoy is refried beans on a toasted tortilla with a squirt of ketchup, served by the kindest old lady you ever met. The bed is a ratty old couch with protruding springs in the tidiest, most dilapidated trailer you ever saw.

Mariaelena, who goes by "MJ" for short, is 36, with the heart and verve of a 19-year-old aching for justice. A sturdy five-foot-eight with a shock of thick black hair and a ready, dimpled smile, MJ's three passions in life are her husband Mark ("Being married to your best friend is awesome!"), her son Hudson ("Sometimes I think he comes from this generation of destruction, but he's a good kid and he understands that we need peace"), and her on-again-off-again job as a community organizer ("The work has to go on, Dan!") Although she left the Catholic Church at age 18, she would make the biblical prophets proud with her commitment to serving "the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the poor"—categories of hardship with which she is intimately acquainted as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. The only thing missing on that list, I soon discover, is "the disenfranchised."

"Widow" and "orphan" are familiar roles to her, if not in the conventional sense. MJ's biological mother—like millions of other young and unwed moms in poverty—became a widow of sorts when MJ's biological father stopped playing his part as a dad. It's a story she's heard too many times and she doesn't much care to elaborate.

Mariaelena Johnson (Daniel Weeks)

When her mother's bouts with bipolar disorder rendered her virtually unable to be a mom, MJ became an orphan in effect—another common affliction of the low-income set. But MJ has no complaints: While many in her position might have found themselves cooped up in orphanages or sent off to foster homes, she had relatives to rely on. Andy and Maria, a middle-aged couple at the time, adopted both MJ and her mother as their own. "They're my parents," MJ says with unvarnished affection. "They raised my mom and me."

Then there's "the foreigner" and "the poor." From the moment MJ picks me up in Las Cruces, I can see that her vow of poverty—"it's the only way I can do the work I love"—is not a joke. Years of running around the unpaved, pot-holed roads of southern New Mexico organizing immigrants have taken their toll on the family's rusted-out Honda Civic. The car is held together by duct tape, giving the dash, both doors, and the floor a silvery sheen. There's a wrench in place of the crank to open and close the windows, the ceiling lining has long since come undone, and the one remaining sun visor on the passenger side keeps knocking against my hat as we drive. The gas tank is in a perpetual state of "E" for "enough."

Their poverty does not end there. As I learn over the next two days, MJ and Mark are doing their best to raise their 11-year-old son and help keep her aging parents afloat on a modest non-profit salary, which recently stopped coming when the organization she works for ran out of funds. Having attended a few years of college, MJ can always go back to substitute teaching in the local public schools, but that job pays a paltry $800 a month, no benefits—assuming there's work at all. In a good year, teaching will take them less than halfway to the poverty line of $19,000 for a family of three. She's praying her non-profit position gets refunded soon.

Meanwhile, Mark is busy completing his computer-programming degree at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. He hopes to parlay his new skills into a decent-paying job before long—one that allows him to do more than just pay back his mountain of student loans. Until the family is able to relocate to a district with better schools, their son will have to settle for second best: plenty of love from his parents but little in the way of academic enrichment at his low-performing public school. At least their little "box" of student housing in Las Cruces, priced at $660 a month, comes with utilities and is convenient to work and school.

Looking beyond the Johnson family alone, poverty and foreign status go without saying in MJ's part of the world. Chaparral, where she lived the better part of her life, is little more than a stone's throw from the Mexican border, and drawing distinctions between the two is almost beside the point. With its early-20th-century roots as a makeshift community of migrant farmworkers, the unincorporated colonia is racked by a slew of troublesome extremes. With a population of 15,000 to 20,000 people (depending on who you ask) it is too big to be considered an autonomous outpost in the romantic frontier sense. With its sandy Chihuahuan soil and ring of mountains all around, it is too arid and infertile to support agricultural production, and too remote and inaccessible to attract meaningful investment. Most disconcerting of all, says MJ, is that Chaparral—with 84 percent of inhabitants Hispanic and half of them foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census—is far too brown and politically bankrupt to command political clout. Five percent of the adult population voted in the last election, according to MJ, and that was an improvement.

At $24,000 per year, the median household income sits right around the poverty line for a typical family of four, and a little bit above half the median income of New Mexico, the second poorest state in the union after Mississippi. Officially, 41 percent of people in Chaparral live in poverty, nearly three times the national rate. A similar number carry the Census Bureau's dubious distinction of being "near poor," leaving just 20 percent of inhabitants securely middle class and four percent with household incomes greater than $100,000 per year. As it happens, four is also the percentage of adults with post-secondary degrees. Meanwhile, a majority of Chaparral's children are living in outright poverty, and 100 percent of single-mother families with children under five are poor.

Public benefits are few and far between. According to government data, a quarter of Chaparral residents receive food stamps and just two percent are on welfare. Although welfare reform was meant to ensure that all able-bodied adults find work, barely half the adult population here is in the labor force and 13 percent of them are unemployed. Small wonder that commerce is practically at a standstill: The latest available data on retail sales show just over $1,000 in annual per capita sales in Chaparral, a small fraction of the $12,429 per capita statewide.

Conditions on the ground bear the numbers out, as MJ's tour makes plain. Nearly every dwelling we pass is a mobile home, and most of them are in disrepair. Some have lots of their own, while others are jammed together—three, five, or even 13 to a lot. (Thirteen was the number of trailers on a single septic tank where MJ lived for a time, before the resulting vermin and an "unbearable landlord" forced her out.) There are no utilities to speak of save electricity for the lights and TV. For water, sanitation, and heating you're on your own. "No infrastructure, no drainage, no gas lines," MJ says matter-of-factly. "People survive on septic and propane—or go without."

The roads are hit or miss. Although the county has lately stepped up its game—"throwing us scraps," says MJ—by paving the main east-west artery, Lisa Drive, and a smattering of other roads, most of the time you're kicking up dust on dirt roads in need of a grading. Even the paved ones have no shoulders and generally no lines. Nor are there sidewalks, street lamps, or even shops to speak of, save the two gas stations that double as grocery stores and cater to the food-stamp crowd.

When I ask MJ why these conditions persist in Chaparral, the conversation turns to politics and a fifth category of hardship, the disenfranchised. Chaparral has a large population of undocumented people—"people that fled the violence in Mexico, people that have just come here to work, were just residents and their visa lapsed." As far as MJ can tell, "Only the folks that are documented have a voice," and even many of them can't get their voices heard, on account of their poverty. "Folks were really putting their trust in politicians, that they were doing what's best for them—and they weren't," she says. She describes her recent encounter with a state senator whose response to residents' requests for state investment was surprisingly direct: "There's just not enough money to give to Chaparral … not enough pie to go around."

While MJ is proud of the work that's been done to register eligible voters in Chaparral, from where she stands there is a long way to go in combatting disenfranchisement among America's immigrants. The numbers are startling. About 40 million foreign-born immigrants currently live and work in the United States. A majority of them—22 million or 7 percent of the total population—are non-citizens, including 11 million who are undocumented and at risk of deportation. In certain jurisdictions, like Chaparral, most residents are not citizens.

The lack of legal standing leaves resident aliens without a formal stake in the country they call home and without a legitimate means of influencing the laws that govern their lives. The effects are clear, especially for the majority of non-citizen Americans who come from developing countries like Mexico. Although U.S. non-citizens from Mexico exceed their native-born counterparts in their rate of labor market participation by 71 to 64 percent, most of them work in menial jobs earning poverty wages that few American citizens would accept. Making matters worse, their precarious position in the American political economy leaves them subject to abuse by employers without legal recourse. Fully one in four non-citizens nationwide lives below the poverty line—nearly twice the rate of native-born Americans.

In exchange for the many advantages they derive by living in the United States, American non-citizens pay considerably more in taxes than they receive in public benefits from local, state, and federal governments—$80,000 more per person over a lifetime, according to the National Research Council. The Social Security Trust Fund is a leading beneficiary, as undocumented immigrants alone contribute roughly $15 billion per year through their payroll taxes while taking just $1 billion out, on account of their general ineligibility for retirement and disability benefits. The total tax contribution of undocumented workers is estimated at $133 billion per year in income, sales, and property taxes across the United States. States with large numbers of immigrants also reap the rewards, with New York receiving 16 percent of its taxes from an immigrant population that accounts for just 12 percent of its people. And the U.S. military also benefits from active enlistment by American non-citizens, with around 16,000 currently serving on active duty despite being unable to vote for their commander-in-chief.*

That's the rub, according to MJ. It's one thing to work in menial jobs earning poverty-level wages and paying more in taxes than you receive in public benefits, she says—a tough break which people from under-developed countries willingly take for the sake of their children. It's another thing to have no say in the laws that affect your life. That is the case for the 22 million disenfranchised people who call the U.S. home but have yet to join the ranks of full-fledged citizens.

And it wasn't always that way. Few Americans today question the longstanding practice of denying resident aliens the right to vote. But few Americans are aware that no court in the United States has ever found non-citizen voting to be unconstitutional. For most of our country's first 150 years, a majority of American states extended the franchise to resident aliens, and a handful of American cities continue the practice today in local elections. As many as 40 American states and territories extended the right to vote in local, state, and even federal elections to their non-citizen residents between 1776 and the 1920s, when the practice fell out of favor amid anti-immigrant fervor. More than 40 democracies worldwide currently permit their resident aliens to vote.

Not surprisingly, most immigrants are eager to join the ranks of full-fledged citizens, a process that typically takes eight to 10 years and is considerably more costly and restrictive than in the past. Many undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States are prevented from naturalizing. For those immigrants who are able to become citizens and join the formal workforce, the rate of poverty falls to 12.5 percent, less than that of the native-born population. Yet until they reach their goal, or until America decides to revisit its earlier tradition of alien enfranchisement, poverty among immigrant communities is likely to remain as the voices of foreign-born immigrants continue to go unheard.

Sources: Nicole Porter, "Expanding the Vote" (felon disenfranchisement), U.S. Census (D.C. voting representation, U.S. territories, and resident aliens).

Over dinner of refried beans on tortilla, with the desert sun disappearing over the ridge in the direction of Arizona, I ask MJ's parents what it meant for them to be foreigners in the land they called home. Looking back to the 1930s and '40s when they were growing up, Maria recalls a time when America welcomed its southern neighbors into its fields and factories with open arms. "There was no border—people came and went," Maria says, in her mix of Spanish and English. "Plenty of work to be done."

Then things began to change. Although he can't quite pinpoint when the feeling of being unwelcome began, Andy says it stalked them as they moved from place to place across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California in search of steady work. They saw it in the California farm owner who hired and fired his immigrant workers at will—including Andy—and paid them substandard wages. His refusal to make the required payroll contributions, Maria says, is part of the reason their Social Security check totals just $700 a month combined—roughly half the poverty line for a family of two. They saw it in the factories where Maria worked in Texas and California, assembling rifle scopes and other wares without basic protections from radiation and repetitive stress. When her job in El Paso was finally shipped abroad in 1982, she retired from 35 years of factory work with rheumatoid arthritis—followed soon after by cancer—and what little she had managed to save on $6 an hour. That's when the couple packed up and moved to Chaparral, purchasing their present 12-by-40 foot trailer and land on loan for $8,000 and adopting MJ and her mother as their own.

But their story is not all doom and gloom. In addition to MJ and her mom, Andy and Maria take pride in the nine other children they adopted and raised in their home, for months or years at a time as circumstances required. The pictures and cards adorning the trailer's walls and Maria's eager introductions put in perspective the generous welcome they've shown in taking me in for the night, stranger though I am. The unfortunate physical condition of their home—like MJ's car, the walls and floor are sealed in duct tape—doesn't prevent Maria from keeping the trailer meticulously clean and offering me every kind of hospitality she can. No shortage of sympathy here.

Daniel Weeks

As for their right to live in the United States, President Ronald Reagan's amnesty for undocumented immigrants in 1986 provided a welcome relief and allowed them to officially begin their quest for U.S. citizenship. Now in their late eighties, Andy and Maria celebrate their newfound rights and the responsibilities they bring to participate in public life. But they've learned to keep their expectations in check. As far as Andy can tell, "The politicians only come here when they're looking for votes .... They promise lots and lots of things but they never deliver." Add to that the three hours they had to spend waiting in line to vote in the last election—it was Andy's first election since he gained citizenship in 2009 at the age of 84—and you can understand why they are less than impressed with American democracy. "Politicians don't care about the little people," Andy concludes.

When I catch a lift with MJ and Mark back to the Greyhound terminal late the next day, talk turns to their son Hudson and the future. True to her Bible school roots, MJ figures "the poor will always be with us" to some extent—widows, orphans, and foreigners included. But when millions of children are born into poverty in America, she says, something is seriously wrong with the way our country works. "You know how you're supposed to go spread your wings after high school? For some of these folks, there's no wings to spread …" Her prescription is simple: "More democracy—people have got to have their rights."


* Non-citizens serving in the military are now eligible to apply for expedited citizenship after completing a single day of honorable service, thanks to a July 3, 2002, executive order issued by President George W. Bush.

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This it the conclusion of a week-long series exploring the intersection of poverty and democracy in America. Read the rest of the series:

Poverty vs. Democracy in America: 50 years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, tens of millions of second-class Americans are still legally or effectively disenfranchised.

Should Felons Lose the Right to Vote? The poor and minorities are disproportionately locked up—and as a result, disproportionately banned from the polls.

Immigrant Voting: Not a Crazy Idea: Until the 1920s, many states and territories allowed non-citizens to cast ballots. Given their role in American society, it's worth reconsidering the practice.

Second-Class Citizens: How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on Democracy: Is there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so.

Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote? Even when America's underclass isn't formally stripped of its ballot, a slew of barriers come between them and full representation and participation.