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“Apprehensive, insulted and angry” – Fighting Texas’ Shameful Attempt to Purge Naturalized Citizens from the Voting Rolls

Brenda Wright

Yesterday, Demos and 4 other civil rights legal organizations filed an emergency motion to stop Texas from discriminating against voters of color and purging naturalized citizens who are eligible to vote from the voter rolls. David Whitley, Texas’ Secretary of State, recently made highly publicized accusations that 95,000 non-citizens may be registered to vote and that 58,000 may have actually voted in the state’s elections, based on DMV records. That claim is false. It’s based on data the state knows is flawed, and it ignores the reality that many people who were lawfully in the country when they applied for a driver’s license or state ID, years ago, have now become naturalized citizens—entitled to full voting rights under our Constitution.

That didn’t stop Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton from issuing a reckless “VOTER FRAUD ALERT” and President Trump tweeting about voter fraud and calling it “just the tip of the iceberg.” Moreover, the Secretary has encouraged county election officials to send notices to these individuals and, if they don’t respond with documentary proof of citizenship within 30 days, purge them from the voting rolls.

These reckless accusations have left thousands of naturalized citizens outraged and fearful that their hard-won right to vote is in jeopardy. Nivien Saleh, a Harris County voter and one of our clients, gained her citizenship in January 2018, after living lawfully in the U.S. under a student visa and then an H1B visa since 1997. In a declaration filed with the court, Ms. Saleh describes her experience voting for the first time in the March 2018 Texas primaries as “the culmination of many years of hard work” and “an experience I will always remember.” Finding herself wrongly accused of unlawfully registering to vote has left Ms. Saleh “apprehensive, insulted and angry.” She explains, “I have worked hard to be a productive, law-abiding citizen,” and says that the Secretary’s false accusation “disturbs me deeply.”

Our legal filing argues that targeting naturalized citizens for a burdensome requirement to re-establish their citizenship or be stricken from the rolls constitutes discrimination based on national origin, in blatant violation of equal protection. As the Supreme Court repeatedly has held, “Citizenship obtained through naturalization is not a second-class citizenship.” We are asking the federal district court to enter a preliminary injunction to prevent eligible voters from being removed from the rolls while the case is litigated. Our claims also include undue burden on the right to vote in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments; arbitrary and disparate treatment; violation of procedural and substantive due process; and intentional discrimination and unlawful disparate impact under the Voting Rights Act. In addition to Ms. Saleh, our clients are 3 nonprofits that do voter registration work: MOVE Texas, a youth advocacy group; Jolt, a Latinx movement-building group; and the League of Women Voters of Texas. Our co-counsel are the Texas Civil Rights Project, the ACLU of Texas, the ACLU, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.