On July 14, the AP reported that the Department of Homeland Security, after refusing for several months to aid Florida Republican Govenor Rick Scott's attampt to strike thousands of Hispanic and other minority US citizens from the voter rolls in that crucial, tightly contested swing state, just as was done with African-American voters in 2000 in order to put George W. Bush, the popular vote loser, in the White House, has finally given in to Florida's request to have access to a DHS database of non-citizens known as SAVE - Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements.
Hispanic and other minority rights groups are concerned that this database will be used to purge minority US citizens from the voter rolls because their names might appear on the database through mistake; or, even more dangerous for voting rights, the database check, coming so close to the election, could be used to throw thousands of US citizens off the voting roles pending verification of their citizenship status. There can be no question that this is in fact Governor Scott's intention.
The pretext for Rick Scott's voter purge, namely that there is a danger that significant numbers of non-citizens will vote illegally otherwise, is just as absurd as the Republicans' claim in many other states that the requirement for voters to show a state-issued photo ID, something that many minority US citizens do not have, is necessary in order to prevent "voter fraud", an almost non-existent problem.
To illustrate just how serious the problem of voter suppression is in Florida, the initial review of voter registration records, based on driver's license information, produced 180,000 names that were supposedly suspicious. However, because this information was admittedly unreliable, the list was reduced to 2,625 people. However, once the check of these names began, 500 were quickly found to be US citizens, and the purge was abandoned for the time being.
Scott then sought access to the federal database of non-citizens in order to revive the purge. DHS initially refused, but now has apparently given in after losing a decision recently on a related issue in a federal district court in Florida. I am not familiar with and have not yet read that decision, so I cannot now comment on whether it really was controlling on the voter purge issue, or why DHS chose not to appeal it.
By giving in so easily to Rick Scott's request for access to the SAVE database, DHS has certainly created the impression that it has no fight or will to stand up to Florida's minority voter purge efforts. Understandably, this has created a great deal of concern among civil rights and minority rights organizations, who are also worried that the DHS's perceived cave in will encourage similar Republican voter purge efforts in Colorado and other important swing states with large Hispanic populations.
It is also important to note that Rick Scott's Hispanic voter purge does not come in a vaccum. It is only one of many steps that his administration has reportedly taken to suppress minority votes. These reports allegedly include steps to reduce the advance registration period, reduce voting hours, and even close polling booths in minority neighborhoods and reassign voters to areas where the polling booths will be harder to reach.
Florida has also reportedly been actively attempting to close down voter registration organizations by regulating them out of existence. It also, not surprisingly, has a voter ID law, like many other Republican-dominated states which are rying to supress minority votes.
I do not claim to be familiar with the details of all these reports. But if even some of the reports are true, as seems very likely to be the case, then the attempt to purge the voter rolls of people with Hispanic names is only part of a wider pattern of minority voter suppression and intimidation that would take America back to the days of the poll taxes, "literacy tests" and other voter intimidation methods used against people of color in the pre-civil rights South.
Then why did the Obama administration give in to Rick Scott so easily? Are Hispanic, African -Ameircan and other minority US citizen voters unimportant to President Obama's re-election chances? Is this just one more example of cave-in and cowardice by an administration which is deporting almost 400,000 minority immigrants a year in order to avoid criticism from right wing bigots that it is allegedly lax in enforcing the "rule of law"?
Not if one looks at the details of the conditions under which USCIS director Alejandro Mayorkas has agreed to give Florida access to the federal database. The letter which he saent to Florida makes it clear that, in order to be able to check a given name against the database, the state will have to provide a "unique identifier", such as an alien registration number. Florida has reportedly agreed to this provision.
Since only non citizens have alien registration numbers, this agreement should be enough to ensure that Florida will not be able to use this database check as an excuse to disenfranchise many thousands of minority American citizens, as was the obvious original intent. Despite widespread lack of understanding in the media of the significance of the deal between the DHS and Rick Scott, the real winner in this battle appears to be the federal government - and American democracy, upon which all immigrant rights ultimately depend.
Roger Algase is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He has been practicing business immigration law in New York City for more than 20 years.