There are 23 million people in the United States who can’t vote because they aren’t citizens. That’s the equivalent of the population of Texas. Yet while they aren’t allowed to vote, these noncitizens are required to pay taxes to the United States government and are affected by the same laws and policies as Americans. Many of them serve in the American armed forces, and many are parents or spouses of American citizens.
“In many cases, these people have lived in the United States longer than they have lived anywhere else, yet they cannot vote or hold office,” says law graduate student Arturo Castellanos Canales. “Immigration is a very relevant topic in the U.S. and in the world right now, and I want to create a theoretical work to encourage debate about the enfranchisement of this group of people and to help judges, courts, legislators, and others address this issue.”
Kern County, California—a Rude Awakening
As a candidate for doctor of juridical science, the law equivalent of a PhD, Castellanos has spent the last year researching voting rights for noncitizens, specifically the current criteria for political exclusion of this group in the United States. He became interested in the topic in 2017 when he traveled to Kern County, California with the Cornell Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic to help farm workers with immigration and employment matters. Kern County is the largest agricultural county in the United States and has attracted many documented and undocumented immigrants to work in the fields.
“I was surprised to learn that 53 percent of Kern County’s population was Latino, yet in the previous presidential election, 55 percent of the county’s voters voted for Trump, a candidate who referred to Mexican immigrants as criminals,” says Castellanos. “The same thing happened with congressional candidates in that county. The candidates who had a firm stance to combat illegal immigration won by a landslide. It became evident to me that there was a democratic deficit, not only in Kern County but throughout the United States. Often elected representatives do not represent their constituents but their voters, who belong to a different demographic group.”
“Often elected representatives do not represent their constituents but their voters, who belong to a different demographic group.”
Castellanos sees the disenfranchisement of noncitizens as worrisome because public authorities often neglect people who are without a political voice. “People who are denied political avenues for voicing their concerns are not successful in attracting the attention of authorities,” he says. “They may end up with a lower level of resources provided by the state, such as public services and legal protection. They are also easy scapegoats for political candidates who benefit from creating fear and confusion around them.”
Problematic Labels: Aliens, Immigrants, Noncitizens
This group of people who are not American citizens and thus cannot vote are commonly called aliens, immigrants, or noncitizens. Castellanos realized early that these labels were problematic. “According to American law, those who are not citizens are aliens,” he explains. “But if you search Google images for the term alien, it’s impossible to find an image that looks like a human being. The word alien is pejorative.”
Castellanos finds the use of the term immigrant also problematic because it is imprecise. Every noncitizen in the United States is an immigrant, but not every immigrant is a noncitizen. Plenty of immigrants are naturalized citizens, he points out. The term noncitizen, on the other hand, relies on the prefix non to give a negative meaning to the root word citizen.
“It perpetrates a negative connotation as well as creates unnecessary confusion,” he says. “Expressiveness, vocabulary, and comprehension is limited when you label a concept by what it is not. We don’t ask for the non-women’s restroom.”
In an effort to give this group of people their own designation free of implications and negative linguistic baggage, Castellanos coined the term shosic, an acronym from the Ancient Roman designation suffraigo et honorum sine civitas (suffrage and office holding without citizenship). It referred to a type of resident within the Roman Empire.
Shosics and the Right to Vote—Reasonability, Proportionality, and Necessity
“The situation for shosics is important for juridical science because the right to vote and hold office is a fundamental right,” Castellanos says. He mentions Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 20 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which say that countries should respect and protect the right of every person to vote and hold office.
“The United States is a state party to both treaties,” he says, “and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that no state shall deny any person within its jurisdiction equal protection under the law. So the restriction by the American government against shosics voting and holding office should be required to pass a test of reasonability, proportionality, and necessity. If the restriction fails this test, then the distinction between citizens and shosics is unconstitutional, and the United States would have to grant the right to vote and hold office to millions of shosics.”
Who Are Shosics?
Castellanos found many Americans are opposed to the suffrage of shosics because of the stereotype that shosics are low wage, uneducated, rural immigrants who do not speak English. “That’s not necessarily the case,” he says. “There’s a lot of diversity. The U.S. is attracting talent from all over the world: students, professors, entrepreneurs, artists, as well as farmworkers. One of the arguments against enfranchising this group of people is that they don’t have enough civic knowledge, but some of the people who come to this country are more aware of civic matters than many citizens. Also, civic knowledge is not a requirement to vote in the United States, so it shouldn’t be an additional requirement for these people.”
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which deals with citizenship rights, does not require that voters be American citizens, Castellanos points out. Voting laws are actually state laws. Up until about a hundred years ago, most states did not require voters to be American citizens. “It’s surprising that people don’t realize that,” he says. “All a qualifying immigrant had to do to be allowed to vote was to promise to become an American citizen eventually.
As a shosic himself, Castellanos knows the importance of his research. He understands what it’s like to live for years in the United States without being allowed to vote. “I try to be as involved as possible in local politics,” he says. “I pay my taxes. I want good garbage collection services and potholes fixed. I have a stake, so I truly believe I should have the right to vote.”