Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Voter Suppression: Think a Photo ID is easy? Think Again . . .

 Around the country – and particularly in conservative circles – there has been a full-court press to require photo identification cards for voting.  From my perspective, this is nothing more than voter suppression: an effort to prevent those least likely from having photo ids (students who do not drive yet; senior citizens who no longer drive; immigrants; minorities; those whose drivers licenses expired while they were homeless, incarcerated, or being foreclosed upon).  But I have run into some fairly reasonable people who don’t see why it is so hard to require a simple picture id in order to vote (in spite of the fact that there is no widespread, documented voter fraud anywhere in the country).

And while I am often quick to share my own adventures, I am somewhat guarded when speaking of my children, all of whom are adopted, and all of whom ‘own’ their own stories; I am reluctant to speak ‘about them.’  But this voter id nonsense gives me a platform to explain just how this impacts people – real people.  And so, here are the tales of two real people, eligible voters, both of whom are my children (names changed), and both of whom went through hell trying to get proper identification, though both were eligible and American citizens.

Flashback to 1986.  A young two year old boy ("David") and his five year old sister are found wandering the streets of Brooklyn, NY.  Some neighborhood residents see the children, and ask where there mother is, and if they are lost. The five year-old is unsure of the specific events, but makes it clear that her mommy had sent them away and was gone.  They were walking around looking for something to eat and a place to sleep.

As is culturally common in urban black communities where suspicion of authorities runs high, a grandmotherly woman (“Vera”) took the children into her house and fed them, as people fanned out in the neighborhood trying to find the children’s mother.  That woman was never found, and so David and his sister stayed at Vera’s house. (Social workers in urban black communities are very aware that in these circles, children are much more likely to be informally cared for by relatives and friends  than ‘put through the system.’)

Before long, David and his sister grew attached to Vera (and vice versa),  and, in spite of her distrust of authorities, Vera went to the NYC Department of Social Services to obtain legal foster care of the children.  In a typically bureaucratic action, the Department took physical custody of the young girl, reasoning that Vera was too old to care for her, but left David in her custody and began the foster care paperwork. With the children split up, any hope for learning more of their origins disappeared.

In time, Vera and David would leave NY and join Vera’s extended family in Massachusetts. David was enrolled in school, and life was ‘normal’ – until Vera developed cancer.  I had come to know Vera through community activities, and, on her deathbed, she asked if I would take David into my house when she died.  I agreed, and David became my son. Upon her death, I went to the courthouse and asked for Legal Guardianship of David, which was granted.

Around this time, I was planning a trip overseas, and needed to get David a passport.  And that’s when the fun really began.

I had legal guardianship of an adolescent boy who had no birth certificate.  The foster care paperwork begun in New York with Vera had never been finalized, and so even her ability to legally place him into my care was questionable.

In an effort to ‘do things right,’ I went to the State Department in Boston to try and explain everything and obtain a passport for David.  I brought with me all the paperwork I had, and made my case. I gave them Vera’s certified death certificate, and the incomplete foster care paperwork, and the court-ordered guardianship papers.

What I never realized was that since Vera had lost David’s sister to The State due to her age, she lied on the foster care paperwork for David about her age – by ten years.  The eagle-eyes at the State Department saw that Vera’s death certificate and her foster care paperwork had different birthdates for Vera, and I was arrested, under suspicion of attempting to smuggle a child across international borders.

If not for the fact that I had a political job with strong ties to then-Senator Ted Kennedy’s office, I would have spent the night in jail, but some quick phone calls and wrangling from the Senate  freed me.

In time, I would approach a Judge (who knew my family), who would issue a court order directing the State Department to issue a passport for David.  We would then go backwards, and, using the Passport, demand a Birth Certificate from the City of New York (who could find no such record, but, in the face of a passport, assumed they lost it, some they issued us one).  And then finally, three years later, David would get a drivers license.

It is easy to point fingers here: Vera shouldn’t have taken him in, should have reported him and his sister to authorities immediately, should have completed the foster care paperwork, should not have lied about her age. 

But we are not talking about Vera (and unless you understand the fear and suspicion in minority communities when it comes to social workers and police, her actions may be hard to understand, but Vera was a *survivor* in a system stacked against her).  

We are talking about David.  A child buffeted by the winds of adult’s decisions – and who, if not for my own political and judicial connections, might still be a ‘non-person.’ A non-person who still has a right to Vote.

But David’s story is nothing compared to my son Thaddeus.

Thad was born in Trinidad, and legally adopted by me in the 1990s.  That means that both his Passport and Birth Certificate are issued by Trinidad, and his Adoption Certificate is issued by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (the story of how it took over a year to get him into the US because of stupidity at the US Immigration Office in Boston is another story, but not germane to this one…)

The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 (8 U.S.C. 1101) provides as follows:

“A child born outside of the United States automatically becomes a citizen of the United States when all of the following conditions have been fulfilled:

1) At least one parent of the child is a citizen of the United States, whether by birth of naturalization;
2) The child is under the age of eighteen years;
3) The child is residing in the United States in the legal and physical custody of the citizen aprent pursuant to a lawful admission for permanent residence”

This is FEDERAL LAW.  It is mind-boggling how many bureaucrats, when given a copy of the law and Thad’s paperwork, simply stare and blink, afraid to think and take reasonable action.

Thad is an American citizen.  He has a U.S. Social Security Card.  He went through all the explanations, discussions,  and repeat visits to the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain his driver’s license.

And then he moved to New York.

Trying his best simply to follow the law, get a job, and be responsible, he went to a potential employer and was required to fill out the federal I-9.

Unfortunately, his Trinidadian passport was not seen as valid.  His adoption certificate was not valid.  His Social Security card didn’t have a picture.  His Driver’s License was from New Hampshire.

So Thad, now living with his grandmother in NY, went to Motor Vehicles in Westbury to turn in his NH License and get a NY Driver’s License.

After hours (literally) of lines, he was rejected, because the state of New Hampshire had misspelled his name – Thaddeus – as Thaddues. He was told he must have a corrected NH License before he could be granted a NY license. 

But New Hampshire will only mail licenses to an individual at their personal NH residence, and Thad  now lived in NY, so that couldn't happen. After many phone calls and research, the NH Department of Transportation agreed to send a certified letter to Thad admitting their error on the original license.  Armed with that document, Thad went back and spent another half-day at NY motor vehicles.

In spite of the Federal Law, and in spite of being told earlier that all he needed was a corrected NH license, he was now told that wasn't enough; he would have to have a US Passport to obtain a driver’s license. (Why?  You don't need to travel abroad in order to drive domestically!  But the Automotons at Westbury want to cover their asses, not serve the public.)

So, $260 later, Thad eagerly awaited the package from the Dept of State (and all during this time he couldn’t get a job, or drive, in spite of having a job lined up and being more than willing to work ).

The U.S. Department of State rejected his application for a U.S. Passport.

Why?  Because in spite of having a certified adoption certificate and everything required, the State Department decided that they needed to have the Docket Number of the original court case when Thad’s adoption was finalized.  (This is the number that is used by courts for scheduling hearings, but it is not normally transcribed on adoption certificates in Massachusetts, or elsewhere for that matter).

So, back to Massachusetts to get a docket number – except that the court that originally approved Thad's adoption had been closed for budgetary reasons, and all records were sealed and boxed in a warehouse somewhere in Boston, and it would take days, perhaps weeks, to find this specific record.

Miraculously –  on a 17-year-old scrap of paper shoved into his adoption file, I had written down the court hearing information from that day long ago  - and had included the docket number.  We forwarded the information, and the State Department was contacted again.

On Saturday, Thad’s US Passport arrived.  Yesterday, Thad returned to Motor Vehicles in Westbury.

As is always the case in Westbury, the lines were long and the wait interminable.  As the hours ticked by, his 72-year old grandmother, who accompanied him, needed to make a phone call as she was running late for an appointment.  To be polite, she stepped out into the lobby.

While she was talking, the guard locked the door. Apparently, Quitting Time had come to Motor Vehicles. 

In the meantime, Thad was inside, with 26 people still online in front of him.  When he got to the counter, he had everything except the fee to pay for the license, because his grandmother had it. 

They wouldn't let her back in.  They wouldn't let her pass the check to Thad.  They wouldn't let her pass it to the guard to pass it to Thad.

So today, they will go back to Motor Vehicles and see what adventure lies in store.

The moral of these stories?

Those of you who think a photo id is a simple matter, think again.   The Republican efforts to require photo ids is designed to frustrate and delay and disenfranchise.  If my two sons – both of whom are legitimate American citizens – have to go through this nonsense just to prove who they are – how many persons, with less tenacity, fewer resources, less ability to spend money or spend days on line, with fewer political connections….will simply give up?  

And isn't that the Republican's real goal?

Voting in the United States is a Constitutional Right – not an award to be earned by running a bureaucratic triathlon.  


1 comment:

Some Teacher said...

The bureaucratic nightmare you are discussing is, on one level, surreal. Except, unrelated other than being government bureaucracy, what I have had to do to certify to teach in states as I have moved to stay with my partner has been equally absurd. One state questions the authenticity of the form of another state. Some certifications exist in some states and not in others. If you don't live in-state, renewing certification often requires background checks (already done when certifying the first time) and huge additional fees. To top it off, no state is required to certify a teacher just because the teacher was certified in another state ... and I have spent over a thousand dollars on my current attempt to certify which is currently under appeal.

My sympathies on what your sons have been through and are going through. Some double checks make sense, but others are just stupid. Best of luck to them.