Permanent Residents and U.S. Elections; A Cautionary Tale

Margarita del Pilar Fitzpatrick, green card holder and mother of three, could never have expected the impact that applying for an Illinois driver’s license would have on her life.  It was during that fateful meeting at the DMV in 2005 that she was presented with the opportunity to register to vote. Fitzpatrick claims that she was confused about the offer to register since she knew that she was not a U.S. citizen.  She inquired whether she was eligible, despite only being a permanent resident.  But because it is unlawful for government employees to dissuade people from registering to vote, the DMV officer did not directly answer Fitzpatrick’s question.  The vague response from the DMV official and the confusion on the part of Ms. Fitzpatrick has created a lengthly legal battle, winding its way all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Today, she stands in jeopardy of losing her permanent residence status and faces deportation to Peru.  Fitzpatrick received a voter ID card and voted in the 2006 election, facts she readily admitted when she applied for naturalization in 2007.  As a result of applying for naturalization, she was placed in removal proceedings because of unlawful registration and voting.  She has taken her claim to the Supreme Court for final determination.

Be smart about traps that can put unwary permanent residents in hot water.  

  • Only U.S. citizens may vote in elections (with very limited exceptions).  Do not register to vote, even if registration is offered by an official.
  • If you have registered or have unwittingly voted in a U.S. election, you should consult with a skilled immigration attorney who can advise you accordingly.
  • Never claim to be a U.S. citizen or identify yourself as such, even verbally.
  • Permanent residents are required to keep the USCIS aware of address changes.  File form AR-11 within ten days of moving.  Failure to do so is a misdemeanor and can be grounds for removal.
  • Permanent residents can be fined for failing to produce their green card if asked by a DHS officer. Those living near borders, traveling through airports, or who work in sensitive areas should be mindful of having the card on their person.  
  • Don't abandon your green card by long absences abroad.  If you expect a trip of more than 180 days, consult with your lawyer.  
  • Keep up with your State and Federal income tax obligations.  Do not file a "nonresident" tax return.  
  • If you are arrested and charged with any crime, get a lawyer familiar with immigration consequences of criminal convictions. Even a minor crime can cause you to lose your permanent resident status and be removed from USA permanently.

Don't be like Ms. Fitzpatrick!  When in doubt, seek counsel from a qualified attorney.