Imagine being stuck in a Kafkaesque nightmare like the one my pal Eric Ward faces:
I’m African-American and my family moved to California almost a hundred years ago after a lynching took place outside their hometown in Kentucky.
I’m also undocumented, or in the current anti-immigrant vernacular, “illegal.” I don’t have the necessary documents to prove my identity. Therefore, within four years, I won’t be able to vote, have access to social services, or receive state identification to travel.
How did this happen? Well, it all began when Ward — who has a visual disability, so he does not carry a driver’s license — lost his passport and Social Security card in an airport mishap. To replace them, he found he needed a copy of his birth certificate. After much wrangling, he finally obtained it. But that was just the beginning:
A few days later I headed to the Social Security Administration to obtain a replacement social security card. But when I got there, the Social Security Administration said I needed more than just a copy of my birth certificate. They said I also needed a passport, driver’s license, or state identification card to prove my identity.
But since I went to the Social Security Administration to obtain a new copy of my social security card so I could get a new passport, the Social Security Administration didn’t know what to do with me. So, they told me to head across town to the Illinois Secretary of State’s office to get my social security card. But when I arrived, the Illinois Secretary of State’s office said I needed my social security card to obtain any official document to prove my identity.
Now I’m stuck in a Catch-22 and I’m not alone in this predicament. Almost nine percent of African Americans (18 or older) are unable to document their citizenship. * Roughly 2 million African Americans, eleven million native born citizens, and nearly twice as many low income Americans than citizens with higher incomes don’t have a social security card, driver’s licenses, passport, birth certificate or proof of naturalization. *
As Swati Pandi at the LA Times blog observes, this all boils down to a simple formula: "Want to prove who you are? Get a birth certificate. Want to get a birth certificate? Prove who you are."
It’s not just African Americans who are being swept up in this hysteria, and it isn’t just this misbegotten measure that is victimizing ordinary American citizens. You can also include Native Americans and senior citizens among those whose status as voting citizens is now considered dubious:
Bernice Todd’s Choctaw family roots are sunk deep in the soil of Oklahoma, a state whose very name is Choctaw for "red people." But in the middle of a debilitating battle with cancer, Todd, a 39-year-old who cleans homes at a trailer park and baby-sits for a living, lost her state Medicaid health care coverage because, although she’s a Native American, she could not prove she is a U.S. citizen.
While Todd’s case is rich in irony, she is one of tens of thousands of Americans who are falling victim to a new federal rule—aimed at keeping illegal immigrants off the Medicaid rolls—requiring that recipients prove their citizenship and identity with documents many don’t have.
… States have always been required to check a Medicaid applicant’s eligibility, which includes citizenship. But a July 2006 rule, enforced by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), now demands specific documents as proof, such as a passport or a birth certificate, driver’s license or military record. States face fines if they don’t comply.
The rule, which neither CMS nor the Bush administration requested, was adopted by the Republican-dominated Congress in 2005 despite the fact that there was no evidence that undocumented immigrants were falsely claiming U.S. citizenship to get Medicaid.
"This rule was the answer to a problem that really doesn’t exist," says Donna Cohen Ross, an analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, a nonpartisan research organization.
That pretty much describes the nativist approach to immigration in general. And in the process of fixing something by making it worse, they’re conveniently disenfranchising thousands, perhaps millions, of American citizens, stripping them of their rights as citizens.
I happen to be one of those old-fashioned curmudgeons who believes that citizenship is a sacred part of how a democratic republic functions, and that taking away those rights is not what government should be in the business of doing. But maybe that’s just me.