By Eric K. Ward
I’m African-American and my family moved to California almost a hundred years ago after a lynching took place outside their hometown in Kentucky.
I’m also undocumented, or in the current anti-immigrant vernacular, “illegal.” I don’t have the necessary documents to prove my identity. Therefore, within four years, I won’t be able to vote, have access to social services, or receive state identification to travel.
Let’s start from the beginning:
In May 2006, I lost my passport and Social Security card at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (I don’t have a driver’s license because of a visual disability). When I went home to Chicago, I learned that in order to receive a state identification card, I needed to obtain a certified copy of my birth certificate, which allows me to apply for a Social Security Card to replace my passport.
Later in the week I contacted the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder and was told that in order to receive my birth certificate, I needed to present a copy of my passport, or driver’s license, to verify I was, in actuality, Eric K. Ward.
Since it was obvious, after twenty minutes of discussion, that I didn’t own a driver’s license, a passport, or a social security card, they told me to fill out the proper forms in front of a notary public in Chicago. I quickly opened the phone book and had a co-worker drive me to a notary public. But when I got there, the notary public said I needed a passport, social security card, or driver’s license to receive an official notary seal.
Lucky for me (when I’m in a pinch) I can become very persuasive. And since I had a number of newspaper articles with photos documenting my identity, the notary public accepted my articles with somewhat dubious satisfaction. Next, before anyone could change their minds, I walked next door to the Post Office and happily mailed my documents to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder and went on with my life.
Four weeks later my birth certificate arrived!
But when I arrived at the Post Office to pick it up, the attendant asked me to produce a passport, driver’s license and, most ironically, a copy of my birth certificate to obtain my birth certificate. After waiting an hour and pleading with two supervisors, I‘m proud to say that I now possess a certified birth certificate!
I wish I could say everything went smoothly from this point on, but the adventure only began and came to a screeching halt within a week.
A few days later I headed to the Social Security Administration to obtain a replacement social security card. But when I got there, the Social Security Administration said I needed more than just a copy of my birth certificate. They said I also needed a passport, driver’s license, or state identification card to prove my identity.
But since I went to the Social Security Administration to obtain a new copy of my social security card so I could get a new passport, the Social Security Administration didn’t know what to do with me. So, they told me to head across town to the Illinois Secretary of State’s office to get my social security card. But when I arrived, the Illinois Secretary of State’s office said I needed my social security card to obtain any official document to prove my identity.
Now I’m stuck in a Catch-22 and I’m not alone in this predicament. Almost nine percent of African Americans (18 or older) are unable to document their citizenship. * Roughly 2 million African Americans, eleven million native born citizens, and nearly twice as many low income Americans than citizens with higher incomes don’t have a social security card, driver’s licenses, passport, birth certificate or proof of naturalization. *
In 1950, Sam Shapiro, now Emeritus Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, conducted a case study for the journal Population Studies, and also found that, due to segregation barring black children from being born in white hospitals, one-fifth of African Americans born between 1939-40 were never issued birth certificates.
When you correlate Shapiro’s figures to the 2000 US Census Data on African American Population by Age, Shapiro’s figures show that by 2010, nearly half-a-million elderly African Americans born before 1941 may loose their right to vote and access to federal services. Remember, this is only for African Americans born before 1941!
Most recently, Tim Vercelloti, a professor at Rutgers University, found that 5.7% of African Americans are less likely to vote in states that require voter identification. And let’s not forget, voting is a right African Americans struggled to secure for all American citizens.
If U. S citizens don’t have the “required” documents to prove their identity, an increasingly large portion of U.S. citizens will be denied access to social services and the right to vote at the federal, state, and local level.
For example, in 2006, officials in Maricopa County, Arizona denied almost 5,000 US citizens the right to vote because they didn’t have the “required” documents. In 2005, The Draft Reduction Act denied anyone re-applying for Medicaid who didn’t posses the same “required” documents. And by 2010, the Federal Election Integrity Act (passed in 2006) will deny all American citizens the right to vote if they’re can’t produce the “required” documents.
What are the “required” documents? You guessed it: a passport, birth certificate or proof of naturalization.
Why is this happening?
Strict ID requirements that target immigrant and refugee communities also target African Americans, poor, and elderly communities. Federal, state, and local laws that attack undocumented immigrants and refugees threaten Americans’ voting rights, the right to travel without fear of imprisonment, and access to social services.
Anti-immigrant activists say strict ID requirements are a necessary burden that folks should be happy to shoulder in the fight against “illegal” immigration. But that’s pretty easy to say when you’re not African American, poor, or a member of the elderly community.
As African Americans we should be deeply concerned about the ongoing attack on immigrants and refugees. Why?
We know what it’s like to be second-class citizens---and it’s about to happen again.
By Eric K. Ward