In 2006, Filipino immigrant Elizabeth Keathley mistakenly registered to vote while at a DMV in Illinois. After receiving her Voter ID in the mail, she ended up casting a ballot in the next election thinking she could do so. However, she wasn’t a U.S. citizen at the time and, because of her actions, faced eventual deportation back to the Philippines.
We speak with Keathley and the lawyer who helped her, Richard Hanus, about her years-long legal fight and the common confusion around the Motor Voter Law.
- Elizabeth Keathley, Filipino immigrant.
- Richard Hanus, immigration lawyer.
21-52 The Consequences of Voter Error
[00:00:00] Gary Price: Imagine moving to the U.S. from a foreign country in your late twenties. You only know a small handful of people. The language is largely unfamiliar and your surroundings are completely new. That's how Elizabeth Keathley felt when she moved from the Philippines to Chicago in 2004. She immigrated to the U.S. on a K-3 temporary visa in order to join her American husband, John Keathley. After spending a couple of years in the U.S., Keathley went to the DMV in Bloomington, Illinois to get a state ID. While going through the process, she was asked by an employee if she would like to register to vote. And that's when all of the trouble began.
[00:00:46] Elizabeth Keathley: I show my passport and a visa, and then the guy asked me if I want to vote. They should ask that if you are a citizen here in the United States or something. But, they said that they cannot do that to you. So my point is I have my passport with me and my visa, why they still ask me that question? That it's so obvious that I just, you know, got here. I have my visa. And then he asked me to sign the paper. And then I didn't know that that paper that I signed is I am a citizen.
[00:01:22] Gary Price: That's Elizabeth Keathley describing what happened that day in 2006, when she unintentionally registered to vote, according to the National Voter Registration Act, DMV employees are required to ask people applying for a license or government ID if they'd like to register to vote. The act is also better known as the Motor Voter law. And it was signed into law by President Bill clinton in 1993, and took hold in 1995. Its creation intended to make registering to vote more available and straightforward for millions of Americans. Despite this, however, DMV employees are not allowed to ask about an applicant's citizenship status, because under federal law, the question is seen as discriminatory. So, when asked if she wanted to register, keathley largely unfamiliar with the process and confused about her own rights, went ahead and signed where she was instructed to by the employee. Within weeks, her registration came in the mail and she was able to vote in the 2006 congressional election. But this action came back to haunt her when she had her final immigration interview later that year and was denied a green card outright.
[00:02:37] Richard Hanus: The Keathley's please came to see me after they had gone and navigated the process on their own mainly. They did have somewhat an attorney, I think preparing some of the documents before, but pretty much navigating it on their own going to a green card interview, after she had arrived in this country on a temporary marriage visa, and basically being laughed at for having voted. Now, when I saw them, I saw people that were just completely honest, looking to obey the law. The most down to earth, salt of the earth people, with the purest of intention.
[00:03:16] Gary Price: That's Richard Hanus, an immigration lawyer in Chicago who's practiced for nearly three decades. Unfortunately, Hanus says that Keathley is not alone in this scenario. He's counseled hundreds of people who have mistakenly registered to vote, cast a ballot, and then face dire penalties. One outlet that is fed into this greater confusion is the Motor Voter law at the DMV, which was put into place to make voting more accessible, but has instead made life harder for countless immigrants still learning how to navigate the language and laws of the U.S.
[00:03:50] Richard Hanus: It's second nature to most Americans, you have to be a citizen to vote. It's not always second nature to the foreign national. Wait, I'm married to a citizen. So I must be a citizen or I must be eligible. Or why are they inviting me to vote? Or, hey, they sent me a voter card after I signed that, it must be on that. So the foreign national may not have a sense that there isn't the vetting process that they thought there might be. And then they think, well, if I'm not eligible, the registration will be rejected.
[00:04:17] Gary Price: But that's not the case. From a foreigner's perspective, it's hard to understand how an act that they were asked to participate in, and given little guidance on, can so quickly lead down a slippery slope towards deportation.
[00:04:30] Richard Hanus: We have a person like Elizabeth Keathley, who ended up showing her Filipino passport, being invited to register thinking, why would they register me, invite me, if I was ineligible? Seeing I'm a Filipino citizen, then getting a voter card. Thinking, well, they wouldn't sent this to me had I not been eligible, and then voting, and then ultimately going for interview and being turned down.
[00:04:53] Gary Price: When Keathley lost her first appeal in immigration court in Chicago in 2007, she lost her job at a hospital, her medical insurance, and was faced with the very real possibility of being forced back to the Philippines.
[00:05:06] Elizabeth Keathley: The judge gave me the date that I need to go. So that's so hard. Oh my goodness. I was barking, like crazy packing my clothes, packing my daughter's clothes, or I'm sorry, I can't remember. It's so busy.
[00:05:23] Gary Price: It was an emotional time for the Keathley's. In 2007, the couple had just welcomed their first child together, but had decided that if Elizabeth was forced out of the country, the whole family, including John's daughter from a previous marriage, would start over in the Philippines. At that point, Hanus decided to take on the rest of the case pro bono and put in another appeal to the courts. But it wasn't an easy fight by any means. The case went on for five long years. In 2012, Hanus appealed the case again, but this time used a different approach based off an already accepted legal principle.
[00:06:00] Richard Hanus: There is a defense in criminal law that says if you were invited to engage in an act, that's at the guidance or invitation of a government official, and you relied on that act, that invitation or guidance, you can't later be penalized for acting in accordance with that guide.
[00:06:18] Gary Price: With this argument in mind, a Department of Justice immigration judge finally granted her appeal, accepting Keathley's testimony that stated she was rushed through the voter application process by an employee at the DMV, and had inadvertently registered to vote with no malicious intent. Keathley says that moment felt like a huge weight had been lifted off her back.
[00:06:41] Elizabeth Keathley: I was so happy and thankful, every day, every day. And I'm so thankful to Mr. Hanus for doing this for us. Because of him for fighting for us. I don't know. I was going to be in the Philippines right now.
[00:06:55] Gary Price: For several years, Keathley had lived with the fear that she might be forced out of her home in a matter of days or weeks. Even though she's an American citizen now, she says the whole ordeal still gives her a lot of anxiety.
[00:07:08] Elizabeth Keathley: You know, I'm still scared to vote. I'm still scared. Even if I am a citizen now, I'm in a panic mode still.
[00:07:20] Gary Price: While Keathley was exonerated, others in similar situations aren't as lucky. Hanus points to another case where he represented a woman from Peru who was in the U.S. for a few years on a green card and was also misguided while at the DMV.
[00:07:35] Richard Hanus: I had another case with an awful result,that got, actually, I fought the Supreme Court review of it and it was not accepted. But I was this woman's third lawyer after she had been represented by two other lawyers at the lower courts. She showed up at the DMV, she already had her green card, but she showed her Peruvian passport green card. And was asked, would you like to register? She asked, am I supposed to? And then the person said, it's up to you. So she checks the box thing. She's a citizen, thinking that's the closest thing to being a resident. And it gets a voter card, votes, applies for citizenship, and then faces denial.
[00:08:11] Gary Price: So what can be done to prevent this from happening to hundreds more? Hanus says that the lack of clarity in the current voter registration process needs to be fixed. This means changing the clause in the Motor Voter law, which doesn't allow government employees to ask people if they are citizens before they registered to vote.
[00:08:30] Richard Hanus: I think our country has such a sorted past with how we've discriminated inappropriately, of course, against people because of their race or their gender. We're limiting people's ability to register to vote, and we've gone the other way of making it very liberal. And in regards to what, the way our deportation laws are, they're so extreme that something has to change. And if the immigration laws aren't changing to make less of a penalty for accidental registering voters, something has to change with at least having more safeguards on the process to make sure that only citizens are registered.
[00:09:08] Gary Price: Hanus says these additional safeguards must include a government employees requiring physical proof of citizenship before registering a person to vote. Because once someone signs on the dotted line, the consequences of their actions can be criminal.
[00:09:24] Richard Hanus: How are the Keathley's or anybody else, who are otherwise law abiding good people, getting wacked with the same consequences as say, a drug dealer or a murderer might face, in terms of deportation. They didn't go out of their way to register or to vote. It's the process that kind of went out of its way to find them. And for them to face a penalty because of that, that was, it was just an extraordinary injustice. And that's our job as lawyers to sort of spot issues that might, you know, this is the kind of thing that, hey, Congress, didn't take into account and maybe this wasn't the intent. Or here's a clash of two, say well-intended, laws.
[00:10:06] Gary Price: While the federal Motor Voter law still remains unchanged, Keathley hopes that sharing her story will raise greater awareness that will deter others from making the same mistake. To learn more about the Motor Voter law and Elizabeth Keathley's story log onto our site at viewpointsradio.org. To get more behind the scenes search @viewpointsradio on Twitter and Facebook. This segment was written by Amirah Zaveri and originally aired in February, 2020. I'm Gary Price.
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