Unseen Exclusions in Voting and Immigration Law
TOURO LAW JOURNAL OF RACE
UNSEEN EXCLUSIONS IN VOTING AND IMMIGRATION LAW
Nineteen sixty-five proved monumental in the history of race relations in the United States. In New York, Malcolm X was assassinated, while in Selma, Alabama, state police officers attacked civil rights marchers in what would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. That fall, Congress enacted two pieces of legislation that promised to alter the United States' long engagement with racism. Less than two months apart, Congress sent President Lyndon B. Johnson legislation that broke from longstanding practices of formally excluding people of color from two core features of United States society: voting and the right to live in the United States. The Voting Rights Act of 1965,1 enacted on August 6, went a long way toward eliminating the overt race-based barriers to participation in the nation's electoral system. Meanwhile, the Hart-Celler Act,2 adopted on October 3, repealed the decades-old legislation that limited immigration based on racial quotas.
disenfranchising convicted offenders. The Supreme Court’s decision in
Shelby County v. Holder4 exemplifies this practice by heavily touting voter
turnout statistics that exclude the hundreds of thousands of African
Americans left off the voter rolls because of a conviction. Though it is
impossible to know whether including African Americans disenfranchised
because of a conviction in the statistics that the majority relied upon would
have altered its conclusion—there is plenty of reason to doubt that it would—
the Court’s willingness to overlook this important feature of contemporary
voting exemplifies the allure of using the stain of criminality to erase the
very presence of these individuals from legal discourse.
Civil Rights Origins
The Voting Rights Act and the Hart-Celler Act were enacted in the
midst of the civil rights movement. In their own way, each was a reaction to
overtly racist legal practices that marginalized communities of color for
generations. The Voting Rights Act addressed state and local efforts to
prevent African Americans from voting, which the Court once described as
“an insidious and pervasive evil,”5 while the Hart-Cellar Act eliminated the
national origins quotas that President Truman described as “a slur on the
patriotism…of our citizenry.”6
For its part, the Voting Rights Act was Congress’ effort to ensure that
African Americans could access the ballot box.7 As the Court explained when
it first upheld the law, “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflects Congress’ firm
intention to rid the country of racial discrimination in voting.”8 It did this by
creating a multi-layered oversight scheme, including the preclearance
requirement at the heart of Shelby County.
Soon the face of voting literally changed. African Americans registered
and took to the polls in significantly larger numbers than the paltry few
reported prior to 1965.9 Whereas less than 25% of African Americans in the
South were registered to vote in 1954, more than two-thirds were registered
in 1970.10 Importantly, the number of African American officeholders also
4 133 S.Ct. 2612 (2013).
5 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 309 (1966).
6 MAE M. NGAI, IMPOSSIBLE SUBJECTS: ILLEGAL ALIENS AND THE MAKING OF MODERN AMERICA 239
7 See George Bundy Smith, State Courts and Democracy: The Role of State Courts in the Battle for
Inclusive Participation in the Electoral Process, 74 N.Y.U. L. REV. 937, 942 (1999).
8 South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 315 (1966).
9 See HARVARD SITKOFF, THE STRUGGLE FOR BLACK EQUALITY, 1954-1992, 220 (1993).
increased—from less than 100 before the Voting Rights Act’s enactment to
almost 2,500 fifteen years later.11
Meanwhile, the Hart-Celler Act for the first time removed all formal racial
restrictions from immigration law. Instead, the act adopted an immigration
law architecture that was formally equal. Rather than restrict immigration
by relying on racial classification of potential newcomers, the 1965 act
allotted each country of the Eastern Hemisphere 20,000 admissions slots per
year, and an additional 120,000 slots were to be divided up among the
Western Hemisphere countries based on demand.12 In 1976, the per-country
cap would be extended to Western Hemisphere countries.13 Much as the
Voting Rights Act did for elections, the Hart-Celler Act’s amendments to
immigration law literally changed the face of immigration. Suddenly citizens
of countries who had long been excluded from the United States, most
notably Asian countries, were able to come to the United States.14
Civil Rights Backlash
The Voting Rights Act and the Hart-Celler Act marked tectonic shifts in
the United States’ formal reliance on racially discriminatory practices in
voting and immigration. The old paradigm that permitted overt racism to
govern these key aspects of life was no longer politically palatable.15
Proponents of the racially discriminatory policies that dominated United
States history through the mid-twentieth century, however, were not always
so willing to change their ways. As early as 1961, Barry Goldwater, United
States senator from Arizona and the Republican Party’s presidential nominee
in 1964, advocated a strategy that involved essentially ignoring the concerns
of African Americans since, as he put it, “We’re not going to get the Negro
vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks
are.”16 This position would eventually come to be known as the Republican
Party’s “Southern Strategy” that occupied a prominent role in Republican
politics. As utilized by presidential candidate Richard Nixon, the Southern
Strategy morphed into a putative concern about criminality.17 Importantly,
at the strategy’s core was a thinly veiled claim that African Americans were
11 See id.
12 See NGAI, supra note 6, at 258.
13 Id. at 261.
14 See MOTOMURA, supra note 3, at 133.
15 See e.g., Gabriel J. Chin, The Civil Rights Revolution Comes to Immigration Law: A New Look
at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, 75 N.C. L. REV. 273, 337 (1996).
16 Jack Bass, That Old-Time “Southern Strategy,” SALON (March 24, 2004),
17 See KATHERINE BECKETT, MAKING CRIME PAY: LAW AND ORDER IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN
POLITICS 38 (1997).
at the root of the nation’s criminal troubles.18
By the 1980s, the concern about crime had become mainstream and
expanded to include a fear that immigrants were also engaging in widespread
law breaking. For example, many of the Cubans who came to the United
States in large numbers during this period were said to have been released
from Castro’s prisons (a claim later proved inaccurate).19 Meanwhile, in 1987
Republican U.S. Representative Lamar Smith claimed, “Jamaicans, mostly
illegal aliens, have developed a massive criminal organization that imports
and distributes narcotics.”20
Social Control Though Fear Of Crime21
More than having simply violated the law, criminal offenders were
framed as moral offenders. Their actions were seen as voluntary decisions to
flout good sense and instead engage in a species of moral depravity.22
Violators essentially came to be seen as incorrigible individuals unworthy of
participation in core components of life in the United States. Access to the
voting booth and continued lawful residence in the country were soon linked
to an individual’s exposure to the criminal justice system.
Beginning in the 1980s, Congress increasingly tied immigration law to
criminal law. Convictions for a larger set of offenses, including fairly minor
crimes, resulted in removal from the country.23 Meanwhile, administrative
and judicial options for equitable relief were repealed throughout the late
1980s and early-to-middle of the 1990s.24
Voting law took a similar turn. Supported by the Fourteenth
Amendment’s allowance of disenfranchisement for engaging in crime,25 states
18 See id.
19 Ramiro Martinez, Jr., Matthew T. Lee, and Amie L. Nielsen, Revisiting the Scarface Legacy:
The Victim/Offender Relationship and Mariel Homicides in Miami, in RACE, CRIME, AND JUSTICE:
A READER 263 (Shaun L. Gabbidon & Helen Taylor Greene eds., 2005).
20 133 Cong. Rec. H8961, 1987 WL 849327 (daily ed. Oct. 22, 1987) (statement of Rep. Smith).
21 This section is clearly inspired by DAVID GARLAND, THE CULTURE OF CONTROL: CRIME AND
SOCIAL ORDER IN CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY (2001).
22 See Ian Haney López, Post-Racial Racialism: Racial Stratification and Mass Incarceration in
the Age of Obama, 98 CAL. L. REV. 1023, 1034 (2010).
23 See Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 363 (2010). (describing a “steady expansion of deportable
24 See Ira J. Kurzban, Democracy and Immigration, in KEEPING OUT THE OTHER: A CRITICAL
INTRODUCTION TO IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT TODAY 63, 64 (David C. Brotherton & Philip
Kretsedemas eds., 2008).
25 U.S. Const. Amend. XIV, § 2; see Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974) (upholding felon
across the country have long limited criminal offenders’ ability to exercise the
franchise.26 With the growth of criminal prosecutions that started in the
1970s, however, an ever-larger number of people have lost their right to
vote.27 Approximately 4.7 million voting age United States citizens could not
vote in 2000.28 This is especially true of African Americans—approximately
thirteen percent of African American males could not vote in 2004 due to a
conviction, and in 2000 there were fifteen states in which more than ten
percent of the African American voting age population as a whole could not
vote for this reason.29 Of the six states originally covered by the Voting
Rights Act’s preclearance requirement that Shelby County eviscerated, only
Louisiana and South Carolina are not among these fifteen states.30
Strikingly, over sixteen percent of voting age African Americans in Virginia
(161,559 individuals), one of the covered jurisdictions, could not vote in 2000
due to a conviction.31 Among the three states that were subjected to
preclearance by the 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, one (Arizona)
disenfranchised more than ten percent of its voting age African American
population in 2000 and Texas was a close second, disenfranchising 9.6% of its
sizable 1.8 million African Americans of voting age.32 Overall, more than 1.8
million African Americans could not vote in 2000 because of a conviction.33
This important aspect of modern elections in the United States is entirely
absent from Shelby County. This is a particularly glaring omission in the
majority opinion’s analysis. Despite the majority’s heavy reliance on turnout
by eligible African American voters in the covered jurisdictions,34 it fails to
acknowledge that voter eligibility is severely affected by disenfranchisement
laws that turn upon convictions. Examining only the rate at which eligible
African Americans voters make it to the polls in comparison to eligible white
voters renders invisible the millions of African Americans who cannot enter
the voting booth because of a conviction.
As with immigration law’s contemporary reliance on criminal
convictions to decide who is a desirable non-citizen resident, voting laws that
26 Christopher Uggen & Jeff Manza, Disenfranchisement and the Civic Reintegration of Convicted
Felons, in CIVIL PENALTIES, SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES 67, 69 (Christopher Mele & Teresa A. Miller
27 Id. at 69.
28 See Uggen & Manza, supra note 26 at 777, 795 (2002).
29 Uggen & Manza, supra note 26, at 67, 72.
30 See Uggen & Manza, supra note 26, at 798 appx. tbl. B. The six states originally covered by the
preclearance requirement are Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and
Virginia. Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612, 2620 (2013).
31 See Uggen & Manza, supra note 26, at 798 appx. tbl. B.
32 See id.
34 See e.g., Shelby Cnty, 133 S.Ct. at 2619, 2621, 2625, 2626, 2627.
turn on convictions are putatively neutral when in reality they weigh heavily
on traditionally marginalized communities of color. Facially race-neutral
categorization allows courts and observers to ignore the subtler phenomenon
at work—the criminal justice system is not race-neutral and neither is any
secondary effect that turns on involvement with the criminal justice system.
Products of the civil rights era’s liberalization of the United States legal
system, the Voting Rights Act and Hart-Celler Act promised a future devoid
of the overtly racist laws prevalent in so much of this country’s history.
While both helped the nation move in a more enlightened direction, neither
went uncontested. Within a few decades, proponents of the old racial order
and their more politically savvy descendants identified an acceptable
replacement for the old racism—crime—which was linked to people of color.
Immigration law and voting rights law quickly became tied to criminal
convictions. The end result was a regime of immigration laws and voting
rights laws that is race-neutral on its face and anything but in practice.
Shelby County simply exemplifies the consequence of this paradigm. Framed
as moral scofflaws, it is easy to ignore the individuals who have lost their
claim to membership in this political community. We can simple pretend, as
the majority does, that they simply do not exist and therefore do not need to
be taken into account when concluding that “50 years later, things have