Elizabeth Keathley of Bloomington
Elizabeth Keathley of Bloomington could be deported to the Philippines for voting. Keathley immigrated to the U.S. to marry her husband, an American citizen. Neither she nor her husband realized that as a legal resident she wasn't eligible to vote. [Photo by Bea Corbin]

Update, July 9, 2014:
Elizabeth Keathley recently was cleared of wrongdoing and granted residency status. 

With her spouse visa in hand, Elizabeth Keathley moved to Bloomington from her native Philippines in 2003. She quickly went about organizing the details of her new life in Illinois, including getting her driver’s license.

At the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles she was asked if she wanted to be an organ donor. She said yes. She was asked if she wanted to register to vote. She said yes. After she received her voter registration card in the mail, Keathley voted in a congressional election. She didn’t know that as a new immigrant to the United States she couldn’t vote, nor did her U.S.-born husband, John, she said. It wasn’t until Keathley filled out citizenship papers years later that immigration officials caught the mistake.

Today, Keathley, who is seven months pregnant, faces deportation for voting — specifically, claiming to be a citizen. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted her lawyer’s request to review the case and ordered an immigration judge to hear it again this summer.

Under the National Voter Registration Act, known as the motor voter law, people can register to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or ID card, and state employees can’t ask for proof of citizenship. The law was designed to boost voter participation by making it easier for people to register to vote. But Keathley and other legal residents, overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of the DMV, assumed they qualified to vote, immigration attorneys say.

“It’s a perfect storm of well-intended laws,” said Richard Hanus, a Chicago attorney who’s helping her fight deportation. “[DMV employees] are not supposed to discriminate against anybody. But applicants, like my client, showing a foreign passport with a visa, shouldn’t be asked if they want to register to vote. In some cases, discriminating is good.”

Meanwhile, the Keathley’s future is in limbo. The couple has two children: an 18-year-old daughter from John’s previous marriage and a 6-year-old daughter together. Despite the uncertainty of Elizabeth’s deportation case, John said, “We are living our lives the best we can.” The family doesn’t entertain the possibility of her being removed from the country.

There are more than a dozen cases like Keathley’s in Illinois, according to immigration attorneys, and no one knows just how many people have been deported nationally for voter fraud. Between 2008 and 2013, 11,278 out of 1,048,575 applications for citizenship were denied, abandoned or withdrawn for “poor moral character, which includes false testimony,” according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “False testimony” is a catch-all category that includes illegal voting; the numbers are not broken into specific areas. But immigration officials and others say there are few voter fraud cases.

Still, Keathley’s story is a cautionary tale for immigrants and legal residents, a dilemma for DMV and immigration officials, and a touchy issue among civil rights advocates who fear that cases such as hers could threaten the benefits of the motor voter law and fuel state voter ID laws. Several states have approved or are considering the controversial laws that require voters to show proof of citizenship under the auspices of combatting voting fraud. But opponents contend that the laws restrict voter participation in poor communities of color where voters are less likely to have the government-issued identification required to vote.

“We’ve been really concerned that there have been exaggerated allegations of noncitizens voting,” said Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, director of Voter Protection for the Advancement Project, which is based in Washington, D.C. “No one in their mind would register to vote intentionally because it is a deportable offense. I wouldn’t throw motor voter under the bus.”

She said the problem can be fixed by improving staff training at the DMV and having employees ask, “Are you a legal permanent resident or a citizen?”

However, Jill Zwick, who oversees the implementation of the motor voter law for the Illinois Secretary of State, says employees “are prohibited by law to ask about citizenship.”

Jorge Sanchez, senior litigator for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said DMV should send a memorandum to employees explaining what to do when someone has a foreign passport or a legal permanent residency card.

“It’s common sense,” Sanchez said, whose organization opposes voter ID laws. “If you show up with a green card or a passport from another country this would indicate noncitizen. I don’t think asking the question, ‘Are you a U.S. citizen?’ is intrusive.”

But that is where he draws the line.

“I don’t think you should require people to show proof of citizenship to vote; that’s extreme,” he said. “Things that encourage people to vote are important. You don’t want to create barriers.”

Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service, said the number of cases of legal residents voting is relatively few, but there are enough to have a panel—a special group that reviews each case and determines whether someone should be deported.

In 2002, immigration officials issued a memo about an immigration law passed three years after the motor voter law that made registering to vote a deportable offense. The memo instructs officers in how to handle the cases and allows them discretion in deciding whether to remove an immigrant from the country for illegal voting. Officers can consider whether the legal permanent resident “signed the voter registration card without understanding that he or she was claiming to be a U.S. citizen by doing so” and assess “moral character,” among other factors listed in the memo.

The agency is not using this discretion enough, say immigration attorneys in Chicago.

The number of voting cases has continued to grow since the late 1990s, said attorney Carlina Tapia-Ruano, yet no one wants to talk about it.

“This country has a long history with voting rights and civil rights,” Tapia-Ruano said. “Some people believe that people have died for the right to vote and those who are not eligible shouldn’t vote.”

Danilo Buenconsejo
Danilo Buenconsejo mistakenly voted in several elections between 2002 and 2007. After 29 years in the U.S., he said, “I can never go back” to the Philippines. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

Tapia-Ruano, the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said many of these immigrants don’t break the law knowingly, and deporting them for a mistake is wrong. In the last five years, she has represented five immigrants in removal proceedings and advised many residents who mistakenly registered to vote.

“No one went there [to the DMV] intentionally to violate the law. Not one person. Every one of these cases is a mistake; extreme misinformation,” she said.

Danilo Buenconsejo, a Filipino musician, doesn’t know about motor voter but wishes the state worker at the DMV in Chicago had asked him if he was a U.S. citizen before he registered to vote.

“I registered to vote because I wanted my voice to be heard,” Buenconsejo said, adding that he didn’t know he was ineligible to vote.

He voted in several elections between 2002 and 2007. Like Keathley, his mistake caught up with him when he said he had voted on his citizenship application.

“Danny has a lot of U.S. citizen relatives, so he’s not like your standard immigrant with a lot of immigrant relatives who can’t vote. All of his relatives can legally vote here, so it wouldn’t have occurred to him that he couldn’t vote,” said Joel Peters-Fransen, an attorney who is representing Buenconsejo pro-bono in immigration court.

Buenconsejo migrated to Boston as a music student in 1984. He later moved to Chicago to be closer to his sister. He eventually married a U.S. citizen and now has three daughters. He has started a life here and says he’s not ready to leave.

“I left [the Philippines] 29 years ago, it has changed a lot. I can never go back.”

Correction: July 9, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the type of visa Elizabeth Keathley possessed when she moved to the U.S. She held a spouse visa not a fiancé visa.

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...