‘Citizenship in sight, but then she voted’

Immigrant says registering, then casting ballot were innocent errors, not reason for deportation

Chicago Tribune – Monday, December 3, 2007
by Antonio Olivo, Tribune staff reporter

Beth Keathley was so close to becoming a permanent U.S. resident that she could already feel its benefits showering over her: a Social Security number, a cheery new house in central Illinois, an official state identification card. Citizenship would not be far behind.

On the day the Filipino immigrant took part in her first U.S. election last year, she proudly sported an “I voted” lapel pin on her uniform when she showed up for her cleaning shift at a hospital.

But Keathley, who has lived in the U.S. on a marriage visa since 2003, was not a citizen when she voted. When she told an immigration officer about it, she was charged with breaking the law. She lost her job.

It could derail her citizenship, and unless a judge rules in her favor, she could eventually be deported — uprooting a family that includes her 9-month-old daughter, Sheina.

Keathley’s alleged crime — one that trips up hundreds of immigrants each year — took place at the secretary of state’s facility in Bloomington, where a clerk invited her to register to vote as part of the “motor voter” program.

Immigration laws prohibit non-citizens from registering to vote.

But Keathley said the clerk saw her Filipino passport as part of the application for the state identification card. She figured that if a state employee offered her the opportunity to register, it must be all right.

The state says its employees are prohibited by federal law from seeking confirmation of citizenship before registering people to vote.

And federal officials say the question on the registration form that asks applicants to affirm they are citizens is clear enough. Intentional voter fraud is a real problem, they say, and they have to enforce the laws.

There are no records kept to accurately reflect the size of the problem. But immigration attorneys around the country have seen a steady increase in recent years of deportation cases and declined citizenship due to illegal voting, said Carlina Tapia-Ruano, a Chicago attorney who is the immediate past president of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Before the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “motor voter” law, registration took place before a sworn elections official, usually inside a local election board office or voting precinct — places hard to find for even native-born citizens.

Easier to register

Today, in addition to voter registration materials being available at driver’s license facilities and other public agencies, “you can literally be registered while walking down the street,” Tapia-Ruano said, referring to volunteers with clipboards full of mail-in forms meant to boost voter turnout.

“You didn’t see these cases as much before because it was harder; people had to take more steps,” she said. “Now it’s easier to register to vote. But the downside is people are getting innocently trapped in this situation.”

By the time a flood of political pamphlets came in the mail last year, Keathley was settling into her new life in Bloomington.

It was a far cry from the mostly rural Philippine island of Mindanao, where she worked as a machine operator for a microchip maker that paid her the equivalent of $4 a day. Her impressions of America came from urban television dramas.

“I said: ‘Oh, I thought there were no trees in America,'” Keathley recalled, after arriving in Bloomington with her husband, John. “And the snow. It caught me by surprise.”

Before long, Keathley was handling the household bills and shopping for a new house with her husband, a customer service agent at a home improvement store. Keathley was issued a work permit and found a $9-an-hour cleaning job at a hospital.

Then she went to get her ID card and ended up registering to vote. The form shows she checked a box indicating she was a citizen; she said she does not remember doing it.

Under a federal anti-discrimination law, state workers aren’t allowed to confirm an applicant’s citizenship before processing a voter registration form, said Beth Kaufman, spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.

“Our job is to ask whether you want to register to vote, and if the person says ‘yes,’ we give them a sheet to sign from the board of elections that says: ‘Are you a citizen of the United States?’ and you check that box ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and you sign it,” Kaufman said. “We are not allowed to ask anything else.”

Some immigrants, confused, leave the question unanswered and still receive voter registration cards, Tapia-Ruano said.

Others knowingly engage in voter fraud, in some cases participating in multiple elections, said Marilu Cabrera, a Chicago spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“It’s very important to understand that if you have a green card, you are not eligible to vote,” Cabrera said, adding that her agency comes across such problems after every election and reviews them on a case-by-case basis. “More often than not, we’ll deny the [citizenship] case, but they’re not put into [deportation] proceedings. If someone shows a clear intent to lie and commit fraud, then, absolutely, they’ll be put into proceedings.”

The Keathleys’ attorney, Richard Hanus, contends that federal immigration law doesn’t consider the possibility that such actions are done by mistake. He hopes to convince a judge that Keathley is of good moral character.

“We’re talking about a family unit with a child and a woman with no previous criminal behavior whatsoever who has followed immigration laws to the T,” Hanus said. “What took place is, at worst, an innocent mistake and not an act that was done in any malicious way.”

Her pin said, ‘I voted’

Keathley said she got the first hint of trouble at work.

In her sixth month of pregnancy, Keathley arrived at the hospital after voting. A co-worker, also from the Philippines, who knew of her immigrant status noticed Keathley’s “I voted” pin and said: “Oh, Beth, you’re in trouble now.”

Keathley rushed home that night to inform her husband. Both shrugged off their doubts and prepared for her citizenship interview.

Inside a federal immigration office in Chicago, Keathley said, a government official chuckled in disbelief when she said she had voted. The official ended the interview.

Keathley cried during most of the three-hour trip home, she said.

Immigration authorities will not comment on the specifics of Keathley’s case.

It will be reviewed by a federal judge next year. While in legal limbo, Keathley has been forced to quit working and lost her medical insurance.

She and her husband are weighing what they will do if she is deported. Besides Sheina, her husband’s daughter from a previous marriage, Veronica, 11, is in the picture.

Her husband said the experience has hardened his views on immigration, making him resent those who are here illegally.

“Here we jumped through all the hoops … and we get slammed,” he said. “We’ve done everything the right way.”

Keathley lies awake at night filled with remorse.

“I think about how this affects us financially and how we have a baby. I’m losing my job, and we don’t have enough to eat,” she confided, during a moment when her husband was out of the room. “John says, ‘Just don’t think about it.’

“I don’t know. I want this life.”