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Participating In The Election Process

by Sheela Murthy

On November 2, 2004, the United States of America will hold national elections for President. Many other elections will also take place on that day for important offices such as those for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives comprising the United States Congress. While most attention is focused on the Presidential election, the makeup of the U.S. Congress is also very important, since this often determines which bills or proposals are sent to the President for signature.

It is important to understand how each of us may play a role in the U.S. election process. Whether nonimmigrant, lawful permanent resident, or U.S. citizen; your participation in the electoral process is critical so that those elected to office are truly representing the People, not only a small group that is more vocal and more active.

Nonimmigrants are NOT permitted to vote in United States elections. They may not contribute funds to political campaigns to help those who are running for political office, either directly or indirectly. In addition to nonimmigrants, foreign governments, foreign political parties, foreign corporations, foreign associations, foreign partnerships, and individuals with foreign citizenship are not permitted to give money to federal, state, or local elections in the U.S.

Nonimmigrants may be permitted to volunteer personal services to a federal candidate or political committee without making a monetary contribution, but the nonimmigrant must not be compensated by anyone for this effort. The U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC) has issued an advisory opinion that a foreign national student may provide uncompensated volunteer services. By contrast, a foreign national artist was prohibited in an advisory opinion from donating services in connection with fundraising for a campaign. Donating services at a discounted rate, buying fundraising tickets or items, assisting in any way with loans and loan endorsements, or providing money to a person who is considering becoming a candidate are also prohibited.

Because of the complexity of the rules and the potential fines or imprisonment for violations of these laws, it is advisable for any nonimmigrant who may want to volunteer for a political campaign to seek an Advisory Opinion from the FEC regarding the proposed activity to avoid possible investigation or prosecution. A general overview of the FEC rules pertaining to foreign nationals can be found through Campaign Finance Law Resources on the FEC WebSite.

LPRs or Green Card Holders
Lawful permanent residents (LPRs), or green card holders, are NOT permitted to vote, nor register to vote in United States elections. They are, however, permitted to both volunteer to help with campaigns and to make financial contributions to those who are running for office. Contributions are subject to limitations. It is important not to violate campaign contribution laws.

Since LPRs cannot vote, some may wonder why it would be useful to donate money to political campaigns. LPRs, as persons who have the right to live and work permanently in the U.S., may choose to donate money to candidates who have similar positions to themselves on issues that are important to them, their families, and their respective communities. This, in turn, provides candidates with greater resources to campaign against those who may have differing points of view and opposing goals.

For example, if a candidate is not advocating positive immigration policies and his or her opponent is advocating such policies, an LPR may choose to make a financial contribution to the campaign of the proimmigration candidate. LPRs may wish to make such donations, themselves and their own families benefiting directly from policies reflecting the belief that the greatness of this nation depends on her immigrant population and all that they offer. The American Immigration Lawyers Association's (AILA's) Congress and Media Center has information on the various positions or platforms of each political candidate on a variety of issues. This may help individuals to decide whether they want to contribute to a particular campaign.

Obviously, immigration is not the only issue of importance to immigrants. Many are also business owners and may choose to support candidates who will create a favorable business environment. Many permanent residents have concerns about education, the environment, crime, and taxes, just like their U.S. citizen neighbors. Their involvement in the political process, by contributing and working on campaigns, will likely heighten their interest in politics. Even though permanent residents cannot vote today, they will have both the privilege and the responsibility to vote should they one day become U.S. citizens.

U.S. Citizens
United States citizens, whether naturalized or by birth, are permitted to vote and to donate time and money to political candidates, subject to the donation limit explained on the FEC WebSite. In most states, however, there is a deadline before Election Day by which one must register in order to vote in the next election. Therefore, if one becomes a citizen after the registration deadline for the state in which s/he resides, it may not be possible to vote in the November 2, 2004 elections. Those who do have the privilege of voting should take time to understand the positions of the candidates who will appear on the ballots in their areas, to make informed decisions before casting their votes. United States citizens may also choose to donate to their preferred political party or even to campaigns in other areas of the country where they are not eligible to vote, if they desire to support a particular, key candidate. The AILA Congress and Media Center, described above, can also provide valuable information for this purpose.

It is important to take part in the democratic process to the extent allowed by law. We should not complain about the status of things if we are unwilling to get involved and work for our beliefs or the candidates who support them. It is equally important not to violate any election laws. Non-U.S. citizens must absolutely NOT misrepresent themselves to be citizens by voting in elections. This is a serious violation of immigration law which could have permanent adverse consequences on one's ability to obtain any future immigration benefits, including naturalization. Therefore, before taking any action in the election process, be certain you understand the applicable laws and the limitations.

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2004 issue of Murthy Bulletin on MurthyDotCom. Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Sheela Murthy is the founder of the Law Office of Sheela Murthy, P.C. which consists of over 45 full time attorneys, paralegals, and support staff, who provide excellent service in the area of U.S. Immigration Law to clients worldwide. The Office of Sheela Murthy, P.C. handles cases ranging from Fortune 500 companies, mid-sized and small companies, to individuals who are undergoing the U.S. immigration process. A graduate of Harvard Law School with an LL.M degree and herself an immigrant, Attorney Murthy understands the complexities of immigration and empathizes with those faced with its challenges.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.