Written by: Jennifer Gruver (Managing Attorney Citizenship and Immigration Legal Service)
Have you heard of toxic health insurance?
Recently one of our refugees came to the office and handed over a piece of white paper folded in half with postage stamped from Seattle. Across the top left corner were green and black letters “washington healthplanfinder.” Most of our clients know they can throw away mail that is not mailed to them by name (junk mail), but since this was addressed to his full name, this client took the communication seriously.
Inside the newsletter-style mailer, in nine different languages and in bold type was the question: “Are you registered to vote? What a nice idea. The state health plan finder making sure the voices of the most vulnerable are counted and heard in our diverse democracy. Nothing inside the literature had anything to do with health.
Here’s the problem. It is unlawful to vote unless you are a United States Citizen. A non-citizen who registers to vote and or votes in a federal or state election will not be eligible to become a citizen. How ironic is that? A noncitizen who is convicted of unlawful voting may be fined, imprisoned up to one year, or both, and subject to being deported from the United States.  Furthermore, in order to register to vote, a person must indicate that he or she is a citizen. And this act also constitutes a big “no-no” for refugees and permanent residents.
A noncitizen who is convicted of making a false claim to U.S. citizenship in order to register to vote or vote may be fined, imprisoned up to five years, or both, and subject to removal. 
This is no small potatoes. Five years imprisonment! You may wonder why any non-citizen would ever intentionally break voting laws. Is there really a big gold nugget in there somewhere? (Maybe, but voter fraud is another matter.) The truth is, refugees probably wouldn’t even know how to break voter registration laws, except in cases where the state provides the perfect opportunity to do so by mail, without fanfare. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
On the right side of the inside of the mailer are the familiar government-style lines and boxes labelled with such unobtrusive requests as last name, first name, date of birth, address and such. And at the bottom, a place to sign.
If non-native English speakers waited to learn the US legal system before proceeding forward with things like health insurance, nothing would ever get done. Imagine your own self in the middle of Baghdad or Khartoum trying to figure out what those little squiggly Arabic lines moving from left to right mean and how they relate to whether you’ll receive medical care if your moped crashes. Thus, when a health insurance document comes in the mail bearing the familiar markings of health insurance and asks for info that can easily be provided, the average refugee or immigrant of self-sufficiency and good character fills it out and returns it.
Upon completion of the form, the mailer is folded in the opposite direction and the addressee appearing on that side is, “Washington State Elections Division.”
Thus the refugee or permanent resident is registered to vote!
But does this unlawful voter registration really happen and do people who shouldn’t be voting really go through the trouble? The answer is yes. Just this year, one of our clients was denied citizenship because he voted. Nine times. He swore he never registered to vote, never voted, under oath! He signed the voter ballots nine times. I’m sure the first time he registered, at the DMV or through the mail, he figured that workers employed by the government wouldn’t be offering him to do something illegal. You’d think that to be a reasonable assumption.
We will certainly alert the state health plan finder about this particular piece of literature. No doubt they did not intend their well-meaning voting encouragement to be poison to our clients. Still, as we make our officials more aware of this problem, maybe we who interact with and love an immigrant or refugee can share stories and pass on the antidote: Become a United States Citizen first, then get out to vote!
[World Relief Spokane’s Immigration and Legal Services Department offers drop in hours, Monday and Wednesday from 9 am to 4 pm to discuss all legal and Citizenship matters. Call 509.321.0327 for more information].
(1) 18 U.S.C. 611
(2) 18 U.S.C. 1015(f)