The Promise of a Path to Citizenship: What It Means for Democracy
A path to citizenship would end the myth that undocumented immigrants are perpetrators of voter fraud—a claim that ultimately serves to disenfranchise citizens of color; it would help ensure that every person is counted in the census and represented in Washington; and it would finally provide agency for undocumented immigrants to use their political voice in the country they call home.
A path to citizenship will not repair our broken democracy on its own, but it would ensure that the participation of undocumented immigrants is never again used as an excuse to impede progress. Throughout history, politicians have scapegoated undocumented immigrants and used them to justify restricting access to the ballot for Americans of color at large, cementing their own power in the process.
In particular, Republican opposition to creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants serves dual objectives. Maintaining the false narrative that undocumented immigrants commit voter fraud provides cover for policies that disenfranchise voters of color who tend to support Democrats. That narrative also ensures that millions of workers in low-wage, exploitable occupations in this country cannot vote to protect their rights—a population that Republicans fear will become Democratic voters.
In 2021, new voting restrictions exploded across the country: according to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are 253 bills in 43 states that seek to restrict voting access.
These efforts were emboldened by a 2013 Supreme Court case that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Shelby County v. Holder rolled back federal oversight of states with a history of racial discrimination in voting practices; in the years since, piecemeal legislation at the state level quickly worked to erode American voting rights.
At the end of the Trump Administration, power slipped away from the Republican party despite these efforts. Predictably, before that happened, his presidential campaign reinvigorated unfounded claims of rampant voter fraud justifying extreme efforts to impede voting—from attempting to delay the election to defunding the post office—that directly hearken to America’s long, sordid history of denying the vote to communities of color. And when President Trump decisively lost the election, his campaign began a parade of fruitless lawsuits and his supporters breached the Capitol in violent protest.
But that wasn’t the end of it. In 2021, new voting restrictions exploded across the country: according to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are 253 bills in 43 states that seek to restrict voting access. Of those, at least 40 bills in 18 states propose stricter voter ID laws and at least five states introduced bills that require voters to produce proof of citizenship before registering to vote.
To defend these proposed restrictions, Republican politicians frequently rely on scare tactics and baseless arguments about voter fraud, often including undocumented voter fraud. Although study after study debunk the myth that undocumented immigrants submit unlawful ballots, the claim remains one of the most commonly cited rationales by Republican elected officials who try and make voting more cumbersome. Despite the flimsy rationale behind these proposals, legal challenges to restrictive voting laws are increasingly difficult to win in federal courts that have been aggressively stacked with Trump appointees.
Creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants would help gut one of the central arguments that has led to the disenfranchisement of millions of (predominantly Black and Brown) American citizens.
Creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants would help gut one of the central arguments that has led to the disenfranchisement of millions of (predominantly Black and Brown) American citizens. And it would similarly help preempt efforts to undermine the constitutionally guaranteed representation of every resident, including those who cannot or do not vote. Although voters choose their representatives, census data—which explicitly includes every person residing in the U.S., not just citizens—determines who is (and is not) represented.
The Trump Administration first tried to scare undocumented immigrants away from participating in the census by adding a citizenship question. When the Supreme Court blocked inclusion of that question, the administration announced a plan to subtract undocumented immigrants from counting toward congressional district populations. Had that policy been implemented, California, Texas, and Florida would have lost House seats to Alabama, Minnesota, and Ohio—but the Biden Administration rescinded that endeavor before it could materialize.
Although those efforts to redefine who legally “counts” in America did not succeed, the chilling effect brought on by the possibility of a citizenship question was real. Stoking fear around census participation has almost certainly led to an undercount of immigrant communities. And undercounting, a recurring problem with Black, Latinx, and other frequently marginalized communities, leads directly to underfunding and underrepresentation.
A path to citizenship would help encourage immigrant participation in the census and would eliminate one long-abused justification for voter suppression. Entire communities—reaching far beyond the undocumented—would become more involved in our democracy. But most fundamentally, undocumented immigrants who earn citizenship would be given the right to vote in a country that has politicized and weaponized their existence for years––a country they still call home.