Voter Suppression and the Immigrant Voice

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Pennsylvania is one of the states, around the country, where Republicans have passed a strict voter photo ID requirement law. On Thursday, September 13, the State Supreme Court began hearing the case against this exclusionary law, passed by a Republican-controlled legislature and a Republican governor. Pittsburgh-area residents took to the streets to deliver a petition with over 17,000 signatures against Pennsylvania's new voter ID law, appealing to the local election officials not to enforce the law, regardless of the court's decision.

This skillful legal manipulation to discriminate against poor blacks, Latinos, the elderly, South Asians, women and other minorities, and exclude them from exercising their civil rights, will disenfranchise an estimated half-a-million to a million voters in Pennsylvania. There has never been any reported "in-person" voter fraud, and the reason to push this law through, was made very clear by Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader, who shamelessly bragged at a committee meeting that passing the voter ID law will guarantee Mr. Romney a win. It is their version of "legitimate rape" of voter rights, and goes against the very foundation of our democracy.

The distaste for the Bush presidency called people to action and many minority groups, including South Asians, who make up one of the largest Asian-American ethnic groups in the country, banded together and got involved in the political process and motivated others to register and vote. But, when the Florida fiasco gave George Bush another term, a large number of immigrant voters were shocked and had to acknowledge that the American democratic system was flawed. Voter manipulations through bribery, intimidation or misinformation are quite common in other parts of the world. But, how could such things happen here, in America? Over 3.4 million South Asians live in the United States. The 2010 census reveals that the South Asian-American population (Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bhutanese and Nepalese) has increased tremendously since 2000. The Bangladeshi community experienced the most significant growth, jumping by 212 percent. A large number of Bangladeshi Americans live in the Philadelphia area, and many of them will be affected by the Pennsylvania voter suppression law. So many people; women who walk to the local shops to work, stay-at-home mothers, young men and women between the ages of 18 to 21, and the elderly, do not have a driver's license or other forms of government issued photo identifications. They will not be allowed to vote in the 2012 elections in November.

Immigrants who leave the country of their birth and seek refuge in America out of simple economic necessity or to escape genocide, or class oppression, come with a very special brand of hope, and struggle for years to qualify for naturalized citizenship status. They take their civic responsibilities quite seriously and believe that their rights under the United States constitution cannot be high jacked.

As a naturalized American citizen, every immigrant mother holds her child closer the day she takes the citizenship oath, and becomes misty-eyed with emotion, as she realizes that a world of opportunity has opened up for her children. Many fondly recall their pilgrimage to Ellis Island as one of the most defining moments and linger on the words mounted on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Written by the poet Emma Lazarus, those words, a promise of freedom and justice, symbolize America's greatness. The "mighty woman with a torch", raises her lamp to welcome everyone without discrimination. The "Mother of Exiles," encourages the immigrant mother to set down her cultural baggage for a bit, and embrace her rights as an American. Lady Liberty is a symbol of freedom from suppression and subjugation and emotionally liberates those who have experienced gender bias, persecution and other forms of discrimination. Immigrant men and women understand what it means to "breathe free." The greatest democracy gives all American citizens certain rights which guarantees the next generations of children, their place in a free and fair American society. The right to vote is certainly an important one and cannot be taken away at whim.

In 2008, many minority groups around America believed that they had the power to change things with their vote. It was with this hopeful mentality; many more got involved in the political process. They joined local groups and volunteered their time, held fund raisers, knocked on doors, handed out flyers, went out to register young voters and made thousands of phone calls. They spoke up and their voices were heard. With a sense of pride, they stood a little taller and made history with Barack Obama.

But now, these very people gather together not just to talk about the grave issues facing all Americans today, but also to share their sense of frustration at the new photo ID laws which will affect the rights of so many in their communities. Their voices will be silenced in the upcoming Presidential elections in November and their fundamental right to vote will be trampled upon. The ability to exercise the right to vote unifies immigrants and makes them a part of mainstream America. They head to the polling booths not as Indian Americans, Bangladeshi Americans, Pakistani Americans, etc., but just as Americans. All minorities in the states which has passed the voter photo ID laws are at risk of losing their valuable piece of the American dream. Their vote is their voice and every American voice, whether poor blacks or Latinos, South Asians or the elderly and other minority groups must be heard.

If the State Supreme Court does not strike down the voter suppressing photo ID law in Pennsylvania, the torch which Lady Liberty holds to welcome "the tempest-tossed," will burn less brightly and, perhaps if we look closer, we might see a mighty tear roll down her cheek.

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