Los Angeles Times

For the undocument­ed, high stakes but no vote

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

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 of 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.

Today’s 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 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, somewhere between 2.3 and 2.6 million, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. About 1 in 10 workers in California is an undocument­ed immigrant.

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 last 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 [Gov. Gavin] 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 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 Newsom staying 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 to not 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 B. 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.

 ?? Dania Maxwell Los Angeles Times ?? 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 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.

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