A federal appeals court has cleared a Filipino immigrant of wrongdoing for registering to vote while getting her driver's license and then casting a ballot, ending her battle of nearly 10 years to remain in the United States.
"I feel like I am now part of the United States," Elizabeth Keathley, 35, told The Chicago Tribune
. "I am so happy it's all over."
In 2006, Keathley registered to vote while getting her driver's license, which is allowed through the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the "motor voter" law.
The Bloomington, Ill., woman said she didn't know that she wasn't allowed to register because the motor voter law mandates that anyone applying for a driver's license or ID card be asked if they wish to get their voter's card.
Since she had her voter registration and a driver's license, she believed she was allowed to vote in the 2006 Illinois congressional election, which she proudly did, even displaying her "I voted" sticker afterward.
The problem was, Keathley wasn't yet a U.S. citizen — and when immigration officials learned she'd voted, her problems began.
Keathley was finally cleared of wrongdoing by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, which ruled she did not intentionally do anything wrong when she registered. In addition, a Department of Justice immigration judge has approved her for permanent residence.
But for years, her fate, like that of dozens of other immigrants who registered to vote through the motor voter law, was in the hands of immigration authorities.
The conservative legal group Judicial Watch has launched a fight against the law
, sending letters to the District of Columbia, Iowa, and Colorado and alleging that the three jurisdictions have violated the law by having more people registered to vote than are
eligible according to the most recent Census data.
The group has asked the district and two states to remove those who are no longer eligible to vote there because they have moved, died, are convicted felons, or are not citizens.
"Dirty voter rolls can mean dirty elections," Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch president, said in a statement. "Many states are shirking their legal responsibilities to maintain clean voter rolls. This undermines confidence in our election system."
Citizens can slip through the cracks because federal law forbids Department of Motor Vehicles workers to ask applicants about their citizenship status. Keathley testified that an official at the licensing facility rushed her through the voter registration application and told her where to sign her name.
She had been in the United States just three years, moving here in 2003 with her husband John, an American citizen.
But shortly after she registered to vote and then cast her ballot in the November 2006 election, Keathley and her husband went to her citizenship interview in Chicago, and quickly learned her mistake.
She says the government official laughed at her when it was revealed she'd voted, and immediately stopped the interview.
"They made fun of me," she recalled. "It was so, so hard for us."
After that, Keathley, who was then six months pregnant, lost her job at a hospital and her medical insurance, and thought her future with her family was also lost.
The Department of Homeland Security followed up the citizenship interview by ordering Keathley to appear before an immigration judge in August 2007, accusing her of falsely representing herself as a citizen so she could vote. It then called for her to be deported.
The next year, another immigration court dropped the false representation charge but still denied that she could stay as a permanent resident because she'd voted, and gave a period of time to leave the country on her own.
In 2008, an immigration court dropped the charge of false representation but denied Keathley's application for permanent residence because she had voted in violation of federal law. The court instead gave her a period of time to leave on her own. She appealed the case in 2011, and was finally cleared of all charges last week.
Immigration officials aren't commenting, but her attorney, Richard Hanus, said there is a common assumption that legal immigrants know all the laws, and since state officials can't ask about their citizenship, they are confused by things like the motor voter law.
"If someone comes into the DMV wearing a T-shirt that says 'I'm not a U.S. citizen,' would they still be asked to vote?" said Hanus. "The answer is yes."
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