THE BLOG

Virginia's Legal Residents Step Up: If You Can't Vote for Them, Campaign for Them

Virginia gains about 30,000 new legal permanent residents annually, around 2 percent of the United States' total. (In comparison, the top two states, California and New York, combine for 37 percent. See here.)
Those green-card holders and their foreign compatriots living here cannot vote in a U.S. presidential election. Nonetheless, that doesn't mean they might not tip the balance in the Old Dominion: they can't vote, but they can certainly campaign.

Aditi Vaish, a long-time U.S. resident awaiting a green card, says, "It is very frustrating to live here, pay taxes here, own property etc. but not ever be able to participate in the election process. You feel as though you are contributing to the economy and are affected by
government just as much as the next person, but you don't have any say in deciding who will make those decisions that will affect your life. I don't know how many non-citizen immigrants there are in the U.S., but ... many of them are well-educated and professionally employed, so
it's not like you're allowing uninformed people to vote."

Tanya Omeltchenko and her husband did receive green cards after six years in the United States. She agrees with Vaish. "Why is it that living, working, paying taxes, and being part of the community, we are left out for five years between getting a green card and applying for citizenship, unable to impact the political process which will touch our lives no less than others?" Omeltchenko's frustrated by not having the vote as the Virginia race becomes "dramatic." "Me and my husband," Omeltchenko explains, "follow the election news with passion, but as soccer fans--we can only cheer for the favorite team but without actually pushing the ball to the goal."

True only November 4. In the interim, she followed the debates, got an Obama bumper sticker, attended meetings, and tries "to dissuade our Russian friends who are Republicans" from backing McCain. Vaish, too, talks politics when she can.

Some graduate students at the University of Virginia are doing even more. Barin Kayaoglu, from Turkey, doesn't "mind not voting at all." He does mind that Palin could become president should McCain be elected and not finish his term. Palin's experience in Alaska, Kayaoglu emphasizes, "does not qualify her to become the most powerful person in the world." Hilde Restad, of Norway, also deems the campaign shallow overall. "I am a Ph.D student in American foreign policy, so my main frustration is the lack of discussion of any fundamentals of American foreign policy. The discussion is superficial and, despite what talking heads say, betrays little differences between the candidates." In spite of that, both students have thrown their support behind Obama. Restad worked a phone bank for him in Richmond. Kayaoglu helped with voter registration. "If my dissertation permits," he adds, "I plan on doing some more work between now and November 4 for Barack."

Other graduate students share these politics but not their action. Martin Ohman can't fathom what he perceives as America's religious extremism, homophobia, and willingness to let McCain entertain the idea of bombing Iran. Unlike Kayaoglu and Restad, Ohman concludes, "Since I'm a foreigner I wouldn't feel comfortable working actively on any campaign, but I've watched all the debates, I read about the campaign every day, and I often discuss it with people here and with
people in Sweden. I even read the Republican Party program and was utterly disgusted."

In contrast, Victoria Barr came to Virginia solely to campaign for Obama. The 244-page U.S. election law forbids "a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value" to a political candidate, party, or action committee. However, the law explicitly allows donations of "volunteer services." Barr, from Oxford, England, finished a degree in September; her new job starts in January. "I thought, When I else would I have a month free to work on
a campaign in the United States?" She considered other battleground states like Ohio and Colorado but decided travel would be much easier on the East Coast. She's been staying with a family in central Virginia since October 16 and will return to England a week after the
election.

Thus far, Barr's organizing in the background. "Having someone with a British accent go door-to-door might," she concedes, "might reinforce the stereotype of Obama and world socialism." Indeed, while we talked at a table covered in posters, another volunteer, Lucas, asked in a vaguely French accent for some canvassing numbers. She handed them to Lucas, who happily returned to the office.

Meanwhile, Virginians abroad have been pushing for Obama. Brian Marrs is spending a year in Germany working in the environmental energy industry. While there, he attended Obama's speech in Berlin. "Lots of Germans volunteered for the event. There were Obama buttons and
stickers everywhere--truly incredible. You would have thought the Germans could vote in the election!" Marrs later addressed a high school in the small eastern town of Treuenbrietzen. "Most questions focused on the Republican Party actually. Why was Palin chosen? Why is her daughter pregnant? She is not qualified to be president: why was she pulled onto the national stage? I had few reasoned answers to give, and sadly had to talk about religious influence in the United
States and the retreat of intellectualism."

Where are the foreigners for McCain? When I asked that question, the McCain campaign put me through to their regional office in Fairfax. The woman said, "We don't have a count, but we do have exchange students. In Crystal City we have a British brother and sister and another student. The British pair have been here for a while." The campaign does not actively recruit foreign volunteers nor discourage them, but so far, they seem further in the background--if they are
there--than the non-U.S. citizens working for Obama. That could make the difference November 4, precisely when the foreign guests and legal residents must sit out the action.